SF fights increasing pot growing operations

September 30, 2009 7:05:45 PM PDT
San Francisco's police and fire chiefs are asking for the public's help to fight the increasing number of large-scale illegal pot growing operations.

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The majority of them are turning up in rented homes and police say it is the tips from neighbors which have led to most of the raids. That is why Police Chief George Gascon and Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White want more of the public's help in reporting suspicious activity in their neighborhoods.

Since March, police have discovered marijuana growing operations in 36 homes, mostly in the Sunset District. They have made 44 arrests, seized 20 weapons, cash and 8,000 plants along with sophisticated growing equipment.

"There's a lot of cash and there are other drugs that area involved; quite frankly, there's a certain level of organized crime," Gascon said.

"We have had a public safety epidemic in the Sunset District," Taraval Police Station Captain Paul Chignell said.

The Sunset seems ideal for the urban pot farms. It is a quiet, middleclass, residential district where the ocean breeze helps neutralize the smell of marijuana plants.

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Often, residents have no idea they might be living next door to a pot farm.

"They were very quiet, never heard anything from them," Sunset resident Jerry Reilly said.

Officials asked the public to be vigilant because of the fire hazards.

"Unsafe wiring methods are often found at a grow site that can lead to fires and electrocution or shock hazards to occupants or emergency responders," San Francisco Fire Marshall Barbara Schultneis said.

Aside from unsafe wiring, hydroponic lights, which mimic the sun's rays, and ballasts, which are used to regulate power to the lights, produce intense heat.

"The heat that's thrown off by banks of ballasts are equal to a pizza oven," San Francisco Police Department Narcotics Division Captain Denis O'Leary said.

So far this year, illegal pot farms have sparked four fires. A firefighter was seriously injured battling one blaze.

Most homes in the city's residential districts are next to one other, a major concern for Supervisor Carmen Chu, who represents the Sunset District.

"They actually share a wall so in a situation where a fire may begin in one home, it can easily spread to the next one," Chu said.

Police are trying to find out if those arrested have gang ties or if they are somehow connected to each other because the growing operations are so sophisticated.

A source close to the investigation tells ABC7 there is evidence to suggest that members of the Hells Angels may be tied to some of the grow operations.

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