When a company is caught growing cannabis illegally, it’s often the landlord who’s left to clean up the mess. The criminals rarely come back for their equipment and the police want nothing to do with it either.
So, the landlord is confronted with clearing out sometimes hundreds of sophisticated, expensive lights, watering systems, and other various cultivation items in order to get the space back to rent. Metal scrapper and the owner of CH Hydroponics James Robba stumbled into the market when he was asked to disassemble a huge illegal grow.
Initially, he tried taking the lights apart to sell for scrap metal. Then he found that he could make more money keeping the lights intact and reselling them versus taking the lights apart. He began testing the lights to see if they worked and when they did he began selling them. “I was getting between $200 and $250 per ballast,” said Robba. For the uninitiated, ballasts run grow lights that are used in indoor grows.
After selling off his first tear down, he began running ads on Craigslist offering his demo work in order to get more second-hand equipment. “We started tearing down huge grows,” he said. “People that get busted don’t go back for their equipment.” He said building managers and landlords began calling him.
“We’ve seen gnarly stuff,” said Robba. “We’ve seen people tunnel down, right through a foundation, down 20 feet to tap into the main power line.” He has disassembled illegal grows with 500 lights making these $5-$6 million illegal operations.
You would think that it’s the landlord who has called the police and informed them about the illegal grow. But Robba said instead it’s usually disgruntled employees who end up tipping off the police. He told one story about an unhappy employee who knew the building didn’t have security guards on Sunday, so he went there with the intention to steal. Instead, he set off a silent alarm which automatically called the police. Oops.
Another way that illegal grows are discovered is that cities are using drones to find buildings with excessive amounts of HVAC equipment on the roof. Most buildings will have a few of these mechanical units on the roof, but a grow could have as many as 40. A telltale sign of something unusual.
Then there’s the smell. Robba said one operation without thinking opened a roof panel on the building, thus letting out the fragrant aroma of its cannabis plants. Neighbors complained and called the police.
With all these illegal grows getting busted and torn down, one would think people would be going to jail but that isn’t happening. Police departments found it wasted time and money to go after the lawbreakers. An operation one block from the police station in San Bernardino was busted with over 25,000 plants and no one went to jail. Instead, cities found that good old-fashioned building codes and civil penalties were the way to go.
It’s very black and white. There is no way to argue building codes. It removes the police and courtrooms from the equation. It’s very easy for a city to tag a property with a building code violation and charge the owner with fees and penalties. Five tons of HVAC equipment on a roof is a dangerous situation for the occupants inside because in general buildings aren’t able to withstand that amount of weight.
It’s a violation and the city can earn big money by charging an owner a daily penalty until the building comes back into compliance. So, rather than spend money on police and attorneys to shut down an illegal grow, the city can instead earn money and still have the same outcome. This incentivizes the owners and landlords to fix the situation as quickly as possible.
If the equipment is cheap and old, Robba will charge the owners to remove it. If it’s high quality, then they pay the landlord a reduced rate to demolish the grow. Robba said he does about two a month, but then added he’s already done three this past month. A new light can cost $250 each, while Robba pays about $20 for each ballast, he can resell them for roughly $75.
He believes the high tax rate of legal cannabis companies in California is creating the shadow black market. While many hobbyists buy his used equipment, he also believes that plenty of small black market operators are buying it as well. Still, he said it is getting harder for the illegal grows to stay in business as the city cracks down.
He doesn’t condone breaking the law, but he said the disruption of legalization has hurt the small operators who will now need to turn to other forms of business to make a living. Other things that could be more harmful than a small grow operation.