By Tom Lotshaw
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The El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office is making it a priority to crack down on illegal marijuana grows in South Lake Tahoe, with deputies busting a dozen grows in the last four months.
Deputies have seized thousands of marijuana plants, several dozen pounds of processed marijuana, tens of thousands of dollars in suspected drug money, several drug processing labs and made at least a dozen arrests, according to the sheriff’s office.
The crackdown comes as the sheriff’s office assumes control of the South Lake El Dorado Narcotics Enforcement Team, a multiagency law enforcement initiative that formerly was overseen by California Department of Justice.
“In the past, it hasn’t been pursued as aggressively as we would have liked. But we’ve agreed to really target the neighborhood indoor grows because it’s becoming such a problem. We’re doing several a week now,” Lt. Pete Van Arnum said.
The busted grows have been in rental homes in residential neighborhoods in the South Lake Tahoe area. Operations have ranged in size from 100 to several hundred plants, some of them run by medical marijuana card holders, according to the sheriff’s office.
While medical marijuana card holders can grow plants for their own needs or for other persons they directly and physically care for, Proposition 215 does not allow them to start marijuana production and sales businesses, the sheriff’s office said.
“Though they may have legitimate cards, they are growing more than they are supposed to and selling and operating as a business,” Van Arnum said about the busts and the arrests that have been made. “We do some (investigations) where the people are legitimate. We go inside and inspect and if they are doing what they are supposed to and have legal amounts, that is fine.”
Most of the rental homes have been damaged as a result of the grow operations, either because of mold or wood rot from heat and moisture or by substandard electrical work. Deputies also have found evidence of growers flushing toxic chemicals down the toilet or dumping chemical-infused soils outside, where they leach onto neighboring properties, the sheriff’s office said.
Each house deputies investigate is also inspected by the fire marshal. If a house is found to be hazardous because of substandard wiring, water damage, mold or structural degradation, power to the house is cut off and the house is red tagged by the building department until repairs are made by the owner.
In every site of an illegal indoor marijuana grow busted in the last four months, the fire marshal investigation has found substandard and dangerous wiring installed to support the operation, according to the sheriff’s office.
“Almost all (of the rental houses) are shut down by the fire marshal because of so much illegal wiring for hydroponics and heat lamps and filter systems. They boot jack a bunch of illegal wiring into the house and it’s not up to code,” Van Arnum said.
Most of the investigations have started with complaints by neighbors, including reports of marijuana odors or other unusual activity. Once a report is made, deputies investigate for the presence of a grow and apply for a warrant.
“It seems to be something the public is supporting. When we’re out taking down a house the neighbors will walk down and thank us, and say they’re frustrated with what is going on,” Van Arnum said. “People in the neighborhoods don’t want to tolerate this and we won’t either.”