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Indoor Pot Farms Cast Cloud Over Soil-free Gardening


420 Staff
At Discount Hydroponics, which claims to be the single largest mail-order dealer of hydroponic gardening supplies, "marijuana" is a dirty word.

The Riverside store advertises in "High Times," a magazine dedicated to the cannabis subculture, promising customers discreet packaging and confidential transactions. But once you step into the company's 18,000-square-foot "warehouse & superstore," pot talk is verboten.

If you utter the "m-word" on the premises, clerks will politely direct you to a sign at the cash register. It explains that virtually any plant under the sun can be grown hydroponically and that the store need not know what its customers are growing.

Discount Hydroponics is the largest of more than half-dozen Inland Empire stores dedicated to hydroponics gardening -- the growing of plants with nutrient solutions instead of soil.

Most of the local hydroponics stores are mom-and-pop operations in tiny storefronts.

Colton has a hydroponics store, and so do Corona and Palm Springs. In Temecula, dueling stores are neighbors along Interstate 15. Jarrod Grunder, Grunder Family Organics & Hydroponics' owner, bars talk of marijuana in the store, even by those using it medically.

Most storeowners either did not respond to requests for interviews or declined to speak on the record for a story that discussed growing marijuana.

In recent months, the Inland Empire has seen a wave of police raids at tract homes-turned-indoor marijuana farms. In the past year, more than two dozen of the indoor farms have been found in Riverside County alone.

Jarrod Grunder, 33, owner of Grunder Family Organics and Hydroponics in Riverside, which opened this year, said he doesn't mind discussing his business because he has nothing to hide. Grunder, who grew up farming and ranching, said he caters to home vegetable growers.

Talk of marijuana isn't allowed in the store, he said, even by customers who are card-carrying medical users.

Outside his shop on Magnolia Avenue, potted vegetable plants sit on the sidewalk. Inside, handpainted signs urge customers to "Grow your own" alongside a large poster for a music group called "Inhale."

Even narcotics investigators are quick to point out the many legitimate uses for hydroponics.

Many legitimate farmers use hydroponic growing techniques, and one of the best-known hydroponic farms is at Disney's Epcot Center in Florida.

Tina Torres operates a hydroponic farm in the Aguanga area, where she grows herbs, such as basil, that she sells to local grocery stores. Her plants grow in greenhouses, however, not under electric lamps.

Once, she said, when she was shopping at a San Diego County hydroponics store, the owner joked to his other customers about her being an "anomaly," that is, a legitimate commercial grower.

People growing marijuana hydroponically often cram thousands of plants into a single house, use sophisticated grow lights on timers, systems that recirculate water and industrial-size carbon air filters to mask the pungent odor of budding marijuana plants. With coverings on the windows that keep anyone passing by from seeing inside and any indoor light from escaping, the houses look normal from the street, But inside, once the lights kick on, the rooms are lit up like a football stadium at night.

Those grow lights run up huge electric bills, which often tip off authorities to an operation's presence.

Sgt. Joseph Pemberton, of Riverside County's West County Narcotics Task Force, said many of the indoor marijuana-growing operations have ties to Asian gangs, but investigators see others copying the tract home-turned-pot farm model.

"People are paying attention," Pemberton said. "This is big business."

Pemberton said the equipment found in a 3,800-square-foot Eastvale house was easily worth $35,000. In that case, most of the equipment came from outside Riverside County. But other larger-scale indoor growers will go from store to store picking up a few pieces at a time to avoid arousing suspicion, he said.

Pemberton said narcotics investigators do keep track of hydroponics stores.

"It's not necessarily going to lead to charges against the stores," he said, "but it might help lead us to who's buying" for illicit purposes.

Like head shops that sell the pipes and other accessories used to smoke marijuana, hydroponics stores operate in something of a legal gray area. Smoke shops can sell bongs and pipes, for instance, because legally they aren't considered drug paraphernalia until they have been used to smoke illegal drugs, Pemberton explained.

Sarah Pullen, a spokeswoman for the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, said store owners can be prosecuted if they sell their products knowing they will be used to grow marijuana.

"We would have to be able to prove knowledge and intent," she said. "It's very difficult to say that someone in a store knows exactly."

In the past, when merchants ran afoul of the law, they were growing marijuana for sale themselves or had ties to drug-dealing operations, Pullen said.

Investigators can't make assumptions about what the customers of hydroponics stores are doing with the equipment, Pemberton said. Nor can they assume that the stores' owners know the marijuana growers from the vegetable gardeners.

Sure, they aren't asking their customers a lot of questions, he said, but that's no crime. After all, he said, the people running large indoor marijuana nurseries get a lot of their materials at big-box home-improvement stores too.

Chris Jackson, the owner of Green Mile Hydroponics in Colton, said he and businessmen like him find themselves in a "catch-22" situation.

"When you talk about hydroponics, everyone thinks: illegal," he said. "And it's not that way."

Source: Press-Enterprise (Riverside, CA)
Copyright: 2007 The Press-Enterprise Company
Contact: letters@pe.com
Website: PE.com | Southern California News | News for Inland Southern California
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