The drug war next door

Suburban pot plantations are a side effect of the war on weed

Kevin Wehr is a professor at CSU Sacramento. The graduate students of Sociology 255--Susan Braun, Carlos Bravo, Nicolette Caparello, Michelle Falsken, Alicia Kolstad, Lauren Lowe, Amanda Macias, Michele McGibbon, Elaine Paul, Olgalilia Ramirez, and Kermell Sidney-- contributed to this report.

This summer 21 homes were raided in Sacramento County, including Elk Grove and North Natomas. The busts yielded 14,000 marijuana plants worth $56 million. Residents of the Sacramento area have long heard about marijuana from the forests of the emerald triangle of Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity counties. Northern California has been the crux of marijuana production for the United States for many years: From the development of innovative varieties in the ’70s to the passage of Proposition 215, the medical-marijuana act, in 1996, California has long been at the front of marijuana politics and culture. But suburban pot plantations are new. Why is marijuana being grown in suburbia, and why inside homes?

Pot grown in the emerald triangle historically has been cheap, easy to hide and of high quality (it is reportedly sold for premium prices in the cafes of Amsterdam). But the multijurisdictional Campaign Against Marijuana Planting created in 1983 has achieved dramatic success recently; from 2000 to 2005, the number of seizures increased more than 300 percent. While agriculturally productive and remote from law enforcement, the forests of Northern California are also remote from distribution networks. The “pull” of easy distribution networks and the “push” of stepped-up law enforcement is part of the story of suburban pot plantations; moving pot production to the urban fringe makes good business sense from the perspective of the grower.

Additionally, law enforcement for the last 35 years has focused drug enforcement on urban areas, especially communities of color and economically disadvantaged areas. It seems that growers are taking advantage of this blind spot by moving to the suburbs.

The confusion over medical marijuana has had its effects as well. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned Proposition 215 in 2005, affirming that medical users remain subject to federal prosecution. But in the nearly 10 years between passage and prohibition, as small-scale medical cultivators got used to alleviating their suffering with marijuana, authorities ramped up their technology with high-tech surveillance gear, and cultivators and traffickers were forced to be both more innovative and also more secretive to continue their illicit trade. Thus, increasing busts and punishments over the years has not decreased marijuana production or use. Stepped-up enforcement, however, has displaced production, caused growers to adopt new technologies, and, most importantly, increased the risk of production and thus has increased its black-market value.

In short, the purveyors of suburban pot plantations expected that the anonymity of the suburbs would protect them. But anonymity continues only when daily activities conform to expected norms and patterns; breaches in conformity arouse suspicion.

But there is also a more insidious, less tangible effect of suburban pot plantations. Publicity from two busts in May of 2006 led police to publish “things to watch for.” Tips began to flood in about suspicious behaviors in their neighborhoods: absent residents, covered windows, unkempt yards or failure to put out garbage cans. The request from police for additional information gave community residents an outlet to share their suspicions and grievances about their neighbor’s activities. While law enforcement certainly deserves cooperation, turning neighbors into surveillance tools certainly does not foster any further sense of community in places that are already isolating enough.

The growing of marijuana in suburban areas should be a wake-up call to law enforcement that crime happens in all areas. Continued focus on economically disadvantaged urban areas is not the solution to crime. Crime always has been present beyond the inner cities, and it is time to take notice.