SNELLVILLE, GA. — The only permanent residents in the manicured, multigabled ranch east of Atlanta were illegal.
No, not that kind. They were little green creatures of the cannabis family – in short, marijuana plants.
Raids on 40 houses in 12 suburban Georgia counties over the past two weeks are one recent sign of what police say is a national trend in marijuana marketing: growing the illicit crop year-round indoors, using suburban homes as "grow-houses."
Grow-houses – a spacious incarnation of the old grow-room – have proliferated like suburban-garden gnomes, as antidrug squads have chased growers off remote mountainsides and out of cornfields. In these basements, lights hum with thousands of watts across a sea of plants lodged in a hydroponic soup of nutrients. Upstairs, there's usually no furniture, police say, except a cot, a chair, and a rabbit-ear TV.
"It's the most impressive thing I've seen in 20 years of law enforcement," says Lt. Jody Thomas of the Fayette County Drug Taskforce.
Police say the 'burbs give growers a degree of solace and safety, protected by suburbia's premium on privacy and even a 2001 US Supreme Court ruling that prevents law officers from aiming heat-sensing equipment at homes unless they first obtain search warrants.
The trend also signals that "production is moving closer to consumption" – a path that leads straight to the suburbs, says Jon Gettman, editor of the Bulletin of Cannabis Reform in Lovettsville, Va., which promotes legalizing marijuana for medicinal use.
Alarm about suburban pot-growing is rising, and some worry that efforts to eradicate crops grown outdoors are driving the illicit industry to become more entrenched in middle-class America, a la Showtime's hit TV show "Weeds," about a suburban mom who sells pot.
"This is horrifying," says Sue Rusche, president of National Families in Action, which works to help children and teens resist drug use.
In the early 1980s, 80 percent of marijuana on US streets was imported, mostly from Mexico, according to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), which works to stop arrests of marijuana smokers. Today, 40 percent of the supply is grown domestically – about half of it indoors under high-wattage lights that turn dank basements into sweltering hothouses.
While outdoor growing is risky and the results inconsistent, indoor growing, which began 30 years ago, has become a science, as amateur botanists produce potent varieties in controlled environments. Experts say it was only a matter of time before syndicates began applying basic black-market principles: higher potency and consistent yields equal more profit.
"It's Adam Smith 101," says Allen St. Pierre, executive director of NORML in Washington. "In a world of prohibition, if you can grow it in your little suburban home and cure it properly, it goes right to the top of the market and you see an incredible level of profit that all the other dealers don't enjoy."
Here's how it worked, according to Fayette County's Lieutenant Thomas: A wealthy buyer tied to a group of Cuban nationals in Miami bought homes in the endless suburbs of metro Atlanta. So as not to raise suspicion, growers illegally cut into public utilities such as water and electricity. Fences would go up in the backyards, and basement windows would be blacked over. "Baby sitters" would arrive late at night in pickup trucks, often talking on cellphones. Sometimes they would live in the homes on cots.
Harvested at 90-day intervals, the cured "buds" fetched as much as $6,000 a pound in New York City, where most of the suburban Atlanta crop was shipped. Police say a single house could yield more than $1 million in profit a year. Others say the figure is probably lower because authorities often overestimate per-plant yields.
Georgia has lagged behind in indoor busts, with just one last year. The US government eradicates some 3.5 million marijuana plants each year, mostly outdoors, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. Of some 800,000 marijuana-related arrests in 2005, 90,000 were for trafficking or growing, according to the FBI. The bureau does not further break out its numbers, but experts say growers by far make up the fewest number of arrests.
"We would never have found it without this tip from Florida," says Thomas, referring to a similar series of busts of the same organization in the Miami area earlier this year. "It's so extravagant, yet it has some amount of legitimacy. There's often a car parked in the yard, but no traffic in and out, no buyers."
Growers may have had several reasons for setting up shop in subdivisions like Summit Chase here in Snellville. A key one, though, is the privacy ethos. Darrell Lamb, a local high schooler, says the smell of pot would "slap me across the face" as he and some friends shot arrows in the nearby woods. But he never called the police.
Pat Edwards, who lives across the street, says privacy and anonymity trumped suspicion of the "unfriendly" men who tended the house at 2851 Creekwood Drive, but who evidently did not live there.
"Nobody really speaks to each other on this street, and that's how we all like it," she says. "Maybe these guys sensed that."
Still, people talk. Pre-bust, the biggest gossip in the neighborhood was how the house at 2851 Creekwood fetched one of the highest sales prices in the subdivision, $219,000. Post-bust, speculation centered on whether it would affect property values. Closing up a yard sale across the street, Ms. Edwards struck a pragmatic note as she looks to leave the city for her childhood home in south Georgia.
"Maybe they want to buy my house," she jokes. "I've got a big basement."