MY SIDE OF THE STREET: Grow houses reach every corner of McKinleyville

In case anybody still had doubts, last week’s McKinleyville Press confirmed that we have a serious grow house problem in town. One story reported on a fire on Landis Court in southeastern McKinleyville. Responders located a badly burned man outside the house; he was transported to a local hospital, then transferred out of the area for advanced burn care.

MYSIDEOFSTREETFirefighters observed evidence of illegal activities and warrants were obtained to search the premises after the fire was out. Law enforcement agents found about 17 pounds of marijuana leaves, some growing plants and a butane-fueled hashish lab. The investigation continues, but the butane tank is suspected of causing the fire.

The other story is even more remarkable, not because a grow house containing growing plants, about three pounds of buds and packaging materials was raided, but because it was located in one of the most expensive and exclusive areas of town. Residents of Knox Cove are supposed – by some – to be protected from crime by the locked gate, but this house was right in their midst. Two homes in the development are for sale, and I wouldn’t want to be the real estate agent trying to sell either one.

When the asking prices are $699,999 and $543,000, potential buyers expect more than granite countertops and expansive ocean views. They want some assurance that the drug squad won’t be raiding the neighbors’ house. It’s just not the kind of ambiance they are looking for.

A typical grow house is a rental with an inattentive landlord. The house is empty of furnishings and filled with growing marijuana plants and processing equipment. If anyone “lives” there, it’s usually low paid employees who tend the plants. It’s common to jury rig extra power outlets to run grow lights.

That’s an additional fire hazard, and most raids result in having the utilities turned off. Even if the house doesn’t burn or blow up, it can present other dangers. Growers tend to have guns and vicious dogs to protect themselves and their products; a curious child or pet could get in real trouble.

If the growers are retailing out of the house, a host of undesirables will be frequenting the neighborhood. It’s not unknown for an altered would-be buyer to go to the wrong house. Even worse, someone seeking to acquire the products without paying might show up at the wrong door.

All this plays out against a sea change in public opinion about marijuana legalization. The Pew Research Center has released the results of a new poll in which 52 percent of Americans who were asked if marijuana should be legalized answered yes, and 45 percent said no. To put it in perspective, the numbers in 1969 were 12 percent in favor and 84 percent opposed.

It’s easy to make a case that legalization would largely eliminate the appeal of growing weed in neighborhoods, remote areas of public park land and close to streams and water courses. Why go to all that trouble if commercial cultivation was legal? Instead of expending huge amounts of time and money chasing growers, law enforcement could crack down on other types of crime, including the perpetual cycle of burglary that supports the hard drug trade.

The revolving door policy at the county jail is exacerbated by inmates who would previously would have been in state prison. If there have been any local benefits to that program, I’m not aware of them. Residential burglaries in Arcata have exploded, sometimes to four or five times more than the same month in 2012 as in 2011.

Officials say that nonviolent burglary suspects are booked and released because the jail lacks the space to hold them. Many are addicts and don’t know any other way to make the money for their next fix. Before you suggest they get a job, ask yourself if you would hire the people whose photos you see in the paper when they are arrested.

Experts have attempted to project the potential economic benefits of legal cultivation. Humboldt weed is known nationwide for high quality; many people assume it would command a premium price in a legal market. Like lots of other hypothetical situations, it’s hard to tell what would actually happen.

There are all sorts of potential issues with legalization, but we are already suffering plenty of problems. It’s hard to know which set of consequences would be worse. I recall a case some years back when three generations of a McKinleyville family were arrested for marijuana cultivation; there aren’t many cases of multigenerational families raising legal crops around here.

(Elizabeth Alves notes that alcohol and tobacco are scourges in our society, but very little crime attaches to their manufacture and distribution. Comments and suggestions are welcome care of the Press or to mysidestreet@gmail.com)