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Legal Marijuana Grows – Growing A Problem

Caoimhín P. Connell
Forensic Industrial Hygienist

The author of the following discussion recognizes that there are exceptions to the rule, and that not all grow ops are the same, and not all grow operators are the same. Furthermore, the author of this discussion is one of many voters who initially supported medical marijuana reform in the legislature, but quickly learned that the practical applications of that reform created a far more serious and insidious public health problem. Therefore, the generalities described here are, at this point in time, accurate.

Wisdom notwithstanding, many states are now adopting “medical marijuana” statutes. As the citizens of these states are finding out, the result is a lot more than what they bargained for.

Many voters presumed that the marijuana would be as highly regulated as any other legitimate drug; grown by highly trained professionals in clean, well regulated facilities. And it was presumed that the owners of which would be in compliance with normal environmental regulations, labor regulations, and all the rest that one presumes to accompany a legitimate drug dispensation network.

Many voters assumed the drug would be dispensed, like any other drug, from the local pharmacist, dressed in a nicely pressed shirt and tie, and wearing a nice white lab coat from a gleaming white dispensary. The ugly truth is very ugly; and very different.

Based on our extensive experience in legal and illegal grow ops, the typical lawful marijuana grow operation is not unlike other types of clandestine drug operations; the operator is usually a nefarious character, who usually has a long criminal record. Marijuana grows are frequently found in the same shabby, filthy locations that just a few years ago would have been raided by the police. Dispensaries are frequently homes in your neighborhood, visited at all hours of day and night by arrest warrants just waiting to happen.

Legal grow operators are virtually identical in operation to the illegal grow operations. As such, there are direct parallels to legal grow operations and clandestine drug labs. Operators typically ignore environmental waste regulations, employee health and safety regulations, fire codes, and building codes. Operators frequently are untrained in commercial aspects of agriculture, drawing instead upon underground texts from otherwise unknown “publishers.” Proponents of medical marijuana grows typically skew reality by displaying photographs of sophisticated gleaming, clean, grow ops staffed by workers in hooded Tyvek suits, wearing respiratory protection. If that was the typical grow operation, then voters would have received what they expected.

Commercial Operations
Most marijuana grows are most typically set up in residential homes, apartments, condominiums, and trailer parks. Structural facilities that were never designed to handle the chemical exposures, waste streams, and humidity levels typical of such grows.

Neighbors of the grows did not occupy their residences with the notion that they would be living next to an uncontrolled chemical processing plant devoid of regulatory overview.

Chemicals are usually stored in an haphazard and cavalier manner; stockpiled without regard for proper chemical storage practices.

[Stockpiled chemicals]
Chemicals Stockpiled in a Bathroom

FACTs personnel have processed marijuana grows large and small, and one of the most hazardous situations common in each of the grows was the presence of ultrafine particles (UFPs) and excessive levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) and carbon monoxide. The growers typically will use industrial grade propane powered burners to purposely produce elevated levels of CO2 to promote plant growth. The propane burners also inadvertently produce huge quantities of ultrafine particles, water vapor and carbon monoxide. As a result, normal residential ventilation is incapable of handling these contaminants. The concentration of these contaminants can be so high that they can kill a person; FACTs personnel has assisted in criminal investigations wherein the death of a child occurred in a grow-op.

Furthermore, where the grow operation occurs in an apartment complex or condominium, the risk is shared with the population of the entire structure.

One of the contaminants of concern is the active ingredient itself: tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), also known as delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (9-THC), or dronabinol; the main psychoactive substance found in the cannabis plant.

The residential structure or apartment containing the grow was not designed to control the fugitive emission of psychoactive substances. Grow operators are neither inclined nor technically competent to install modern ventilation and waste management controls.

As a result, the young pregnant Mom in the apartment next door, the City Bus Driver in the apartment above, and the children in the day care provider in the apartment below are all exposed to whatever the mad scientist grow operator decides is the magic soup of the day.

Furthermore, the City Bus Driver, who has never used marijuana has just failed a mandatory urine analysis for THC in his blood. In spite of his loud protestations, he is being removed from his job, and facing disciplinary actions. The unborn child of the pregnant Mom has THC in her blood as well with unknown developmental consequences. The toddlers in the day care facility are getting their daily hit of pot with their peanut butter sandwiches – all unknown to them because of an uncontrolled industrial chemical process taking place next door. Thanks to US Federal HIPAA regulations, law enforcement, building inspectors, and health officials may not have legal authority to even inquire if a grow operation is present in the structure.

Ancillary Hazards
Chemical hazards are not the only problem. A residential structure was not designed to accommodate the electrical needs of a grow. The electrical wiring situation in the grow ops are reminiscent of a plate of spaghetti. Very extensive and elaborate wiring is present inside these houses, and the wiring virtually never meets electrical code (obviously), and treacherous exposed and convoluted wiring arrangements are almost always found.

[Electrical Hazards]
Haphazard Electrical Wiring

The residential wiring system is simply incapable of handling the electrical needs of a grow. Growers frequently tap directly into the overhead power lines to obtain the necessary electrical power. As a result, grow ops, even legal grow ops, invariably contain dangerous electrical configurations that are decided illegal, and frequently result in property fires and other mishaps.
Fire in a legal residential grow operation

Invariably found in a grow operation are grow-lights. The grow lights produce massive exposures to UV light. In turn, the UV spectrum can not only damage unprotected surfaces, but also, the UV light is energetic enough to break down airborne materials (such as vapors or pesticides, etc) into a soup of other unknown contaminants with unexpected and unpredictable health consequences. The grow operation is usually lined with silvered surfaces (see the photo below).

[UV Hazards]
UV Hazards from Grow-lights

In a legitimate agricultural grow operation, such as a green house or hydroponic house, the UV is properly shielded pursuant to OSHA regulations and the ventilation also meets OSHA standards. In marijuana grows, however, even legal “medical marijuana” grows, the operator is essentially an amateur who is employing industrial operations in a residential setting. The majority of grows with which we have been involved, employ growers who essentially consider themselves “environmentally friendly” and as such don't typically use 24D, 2-4-5T, chlordane, lindane, or the like. More often, they choose to use grow products that market themselves as “organic” (the fact that the other compounds are also truly organic is not important to the grower).

Another hazard not discussed by the proponents of marijuana grows is the overt criminal element associated with the operation. For although a very, very, small minority of “medical marijuana” users are legitimately using marijuana as a therapeutic treatment, the overwhelming vast majority of “medical marijuana” is dispensed to casual users who have gone to specialized MDs who are willing to prescribe marijuana without so much as a medical consultation or even seeing the “patient.”As a result, the customer showing up at the grow next door (at 2:00 a.m.) is probably already high, frequently in need of cash, and almost certainly has, or soon will have a criminal record.

Where there is marijuana there are guns. The growers, typically already heavily invested in the criminal world, recognize that their crop is highly prized by other criminals who have managed to get what they need in the past without the need to obey existing laws or get prescriptions. As such, they frequently don’t see much of a need to comply now. Growers are keen to protect their crop and are willing to use deadly force to that end. Although one could legitimately argue that every citizen has the right to use deadly force to protect their home, we need to remember that in this case, the business owner (the home’s occupant) is exposed to a psychoactive substance 24 hours per day, seven days per week, may very well be high, probably has an history of other controlled substance abuse and is about to unload live rounds to protect his stash.

Where there are drugs, there are more drugs. The root of the medical marijuana grower and user lies deeply in the soil of the criminal world. Typically, but not always, the medical marijuana customers, if not the growers, are also involved in other illegal drug activity. It is common to find medical marijuana grow homes that are now also contaminated with methamphetamine, cocaine, and a variety of other drugs.

Investment Stewardship
Landlords and banks are frequently the victims of the medical marijuana grow debacle. Contaminated properties are expensive to remediate; especially if the grower was involved in methamphetamine production or use. Structural damage is common and requires expensive repairs.

[Structural modifications]
Structural Modifications For Makeshift Ventilation

Waste products such as fertilizers and other materials may have been dumped into the backyard, down the into city sewer system, or the domestic sewerage system with resultant damage to the septic tank and leach field. Residual odors, although perhaps not toxicologically significant can be extremely difficult to expel and may prevent the full use and enjoyment of the property – it may also result in a stigmatized property; damaging the market value of the property.

Furthermore, since there are no widely accepted cleanup levels for THC, even when a property is remediated, how clean does it have to be before the landlord or the seller is absolved of toxic tort liability? Most property investment facilities are not willing to be the source of case history to find out.

Having said this, remediating a grow house may not be difficult in many cases and does not usually require gutting the property. The biggest problem in remediating a grow house is getting rid of the odor of marijuana; that can be very difficult.

Processing marijuana oil, black tar, etc, is still illegal even in legal medical marijuana grows. The individuals involved in these activities have little concept of chemical safety or good chemical handling practices. As a result, in this respect, those operations are not unlike a meth-lab and can present terrible residual chemical hazards for unsuspecting building occupants and future occupants unless properly remediated.

Recognizing a Former Grow Op
Grow operations present their largest threat and nuisance while in operations. After the grower has moved on, and the structure is no longer occupied, some residual hazards may persist. Hazards can include chemical exposures (to the crop, the chemicals used to facilitate the crop, and other commonly associated controlled substances). Hazards can include structural hazards, including unauthorized modifications to the structure itself, electrical, ventilation and plumbing systems.

When purchasing a new home, a perspective homebuyer may have clues available to them to alert them to the possibility the home was a grow op. Contrary to the information provided on a popular TV Show hosted by a Canadian Home Inspector, the typical Home Inspector should not be expected to be capable of identifying a grow operation (or a methlab, or other forms of illegal activities). Home Inspectors are excellent at identifying structural, electrical, plumbing, code and other issues associated with a property. However, the interpretation of those observations within the context of controlled substances is simply not within a Home Inspector’s job description.

Home owners can protect themselves to some extent with tell-tale signs that may indicate the need for further investigations. Such visual indicators can include visual signs of tape marks around door and windows. Growers frequently will tape high density aluminized plastic over doors and windows; the residual tape marks are evident after the material has been removed.

Marijuana leaves a distinctive odor behind that can linger for years. The odor is reminiscent of a “skunk-like” odor.

Holes cut into walls for no apparent reason – occasionally such holes may still have duct work inserted.

Heavily modified electrical junction boxes that defy the explanation of the competent Home Inspector.

Modifications to the ventilation system that don’t seem to make sense.

Stressed vegetation on the exterior property grounds.

Unusual colonization of moulds on surfaces. (Recently, there has been a false alarm due to pseudo scientific “studies” that have claimed hazardous levels of indoor moulds or "toxic moulds" associated with marijuana grow operations. However, these “studies” have been based on junk science. One of the more sensationalized of these “studies” was the recent document by the National Jewish Health in Denver – we have provided a critical review of this “study” here.)

Police records are not reliable sources of information since the police may not have the authority to maintain a record of the activity. Stories from the neighbors however are not subject to such regulatory constraints, and the neighbors may have telling stories about the activities of the previous occupants.

Trellises and hooks in unusual locations (such as in the attic); or lines strung across the ceiling, walls or in the attic.

Unusually elevated electrical bills accumulated by the previous occupant.

Although none of the above indicators can be considered conclusive, the presence of one or more may be sufficient for a perspective home buyer to escalate to the next level of inspection – quantitative assessment. In a quantitative assessment, an Industrial Hygienist can enter the property and perform sampling pursuant to good sampling theory and conclusively confirm or refute the presence of compounds that are associated with legal marijuana grows, as well as illegal operations, and clandestine drug labs.

In conclusion, just because a grow op may be legal does not automatically confer a guarantee of prudence or safety. The legality of the operation does not affect the inherent hazards of conducting an industrial process in a residential setting.

The legality of the operation does not separate the grower or the user from the dark criminal world from which the industry grew. Most grow ops remain an untested toxic tort proving ground for landlords, lenders and insurance companies.

About the Author
Mr. Connell has been a practicing Industrial Hygienist for over 23 years. As a former analytical chemist and a current active sworn law enforcement officer, he has specialized training in chemical aspects of controlled substance situations. Mr. Connell has conducted over 220 clandestine drug lab assessments. (A detailed list of projects can be found by clicking here, and Mr. Connell’s illegal drug lab statement of qualifications can be found by clicking here.

Mr. Connell serves as an Industrial Hygiene subject matter expert for the Department of Homeland Security InterAgency Board on the Health, Medical, and Responder Safety SubGroup. He is a member of the American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA), Colorado Drug Investigators Association, the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH) and the Occupational Hygiene Society of Ireland.

Mr. Connell is a consulting Industrial Hygienist for Forensic Applications Consulting Technologies, Inc. who offers his Industrial Hygiene consultation services on a commercial basis to landlords, insurance providers, home buyers and others. Parties interesting in securing the services of Mr. Connell and FACTs are invited to contact us directly.

[Field of Dreams]
Mr. Connell performing sampling at a drug lab

This page was created on February 1, 2010.

Visitors to this site frequently have questions about other kinds of indoor pollutants or controlled substances.

To visit our “state-of-knowledge” mould page, click here.

A discussion concerning myths and scams surrounding sampling and testing for indoor moulds click here.

A discussion concerning myths surrounding duct cleaning, can be found by clicking here.

For a discussion concerning indoor air quality, click here.

For issues surrounding the history and cause of carpal tunnel syndrome click here.

For a discussion concerning indoor radon click here.

For a discussion concerning the myths associated with laboratory fume hood face velocities click here.

For a discussion concerning laboratory fume hood evaluations, click here.

Finally, for a listing of documents associated with the ground-breaking State of Colorado regulations concerning methamphetamine laboratories (meth-labs), click here.

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