How do authorities detect indoor marijuana crops (e.g. hydroponics)?
March 10, 2006 5:10 PM   Subscribe

What sort of methods do authorities use for detecting small to middle size indoor marijuana crops (e.g. hydroponics)?

My mate and I were talking over a few beers about what sort of systems authorities have in place for locating urban indoor grows. We're of course aware of reading power meters and such, but are oblivious to the more technical means that might be in place (perhaps heat detecting via the air for just one example). Anyone care to fill out the list?
posted by sjvilla79 to Home & Garden (32 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
posted by I Love Tacos at 5:15 PM on March 10, 2006

A Canadian cop I know once told me that to find houses containing grow operations they have to rely pretty heavily on ratting-out. Neighbor's complain sometimes of a smell, or of suspicious comings and goings, or people busted for other crimes will reveal grow locations for various reasons.

The impression I got from that conversation was that while the cops check things like power consumption to confirm the likelihood of suspicions, they really don't go looking for the grow-op houses - they wait until someone tells them where to look.
posted by chudmonkey at 5:18 PM on March 10, 2006

You have to sell the pot to someone right? I mean, we're not talking about personal use.

I'm going to go out on a limb with a wild guess and say that the overwhelming majority of indoor growths are detected by some buyer dropping a dime, probably to avoid a hefty prison sentence.

FLIR? Power meters? Nah. Human intelligence. Rats. It’s why the mob was so ruthless to them

( I mean really, think about it. Do you think cops have data mining operations to monitor power usage? Would that even be legal? Do you really think they fly FLIR flights looking at random houses, checking for hydroponics? Nope.)
posted by teece at 5:56 PM on March 10, 2006

Thermal Imaging was found to be legal. Close case! The 9th Circuit ruled 2-1 in favor of the defendant and then later, on rehearing (with different judges) switch and went 2-1 the other way.

So once they suspected you, this would tell them a lot about what's going on in your house. Those lights are hot / expensive.
posted by zpousman at 6:13 PM on March 10, 2006

Re: zpousman's link: The cops need a warrant for thermal imaging.
posted by amber_dale at 6:22 PM on March 10, 2006

Many get busted stealing power. Just pay your hydro bill rather than trying to same a few hundred. A small hydroponic op won't pull more than a few space heaters or a hot tub.
posted by Mitheral at 6:24 PM on March 10, 2006

So once they suspected you, this would tell them a lot about what's going on in your house. Those lights are hot / expensive.

Oh please. You can grow pot with florescent grow lights, you have a basic long tube light, 40 watts doubled up on an $8-$10 florescent light fixture. Total cost $30 at most and it'll use 80 watts when on, which you would have hooked up to a timer (you can get everything from lowes or home depot). The bulbs are actually cool to the touch and use less power then a regular PC running full time.

No, obviously if you have a huge operation you're going to want more powerful/brighter lights but for just a few plants a low power operation will work fine.

In general I think most cops work on leads.
posted by delmoi at 6:27 PM on March 10, 2006

I believe there are "war on drugs" rulings that permit electric utilities to report unusual usage patterns to cops, and that people are occasionally busted this way. The power company can certainly monitor unusual usage for its own purposes. IANAL, but it's at least reasonable to infer from a quick google search on the matter that they have their ways. And anyone who thinks the cops running drug busts do more than fake a glance at the constitutional protections you think you enjoy should not be growing drugs at home. In effect, the war on drugs was the first hint of the new Guantanamo State we're now in. The cops can . . . repeat after me . . . . get away with any damn thing they want if they come after you for "drugs." It was happening long before "terror" was added to the dance card. Only stupid cops, or very wealthy defendents, can change the equation.

But even if they can't, they can damn sure stand outside your house and shoot an infrared camera and see a serious set of lights burning, unless you have a deep and stone-walled basement or a hill between you and the nearest road. Depending where in the country you are, and how many other folks around are doing this commercially, and how nosy your neighbors are, the cops could be right up your ass or not give a damn. And it depends which cops.

I took the question to mean personal use only. Actually, it's perfectly possible to grow enough hydro for serious personal use without burning much more power than an AC unit. Do anything else and you're a dealer, which sucks big time when reality bites. But even growing for personal use can get you busted as a dealer in many states, since they weigh *everything* (probably including the damn water for hydro operations) in calculating how much reefer they just busted. They get federal money based on those numbers, so you might have less than an ounce of smokeable bud, but 6 pounds of plants, or 10-20 in a federal house of detention.

Life is unpredictable. Say you blow a circuit running those lights on a hot day, and maybe you're not home, but there's a little smoke coming from your fusebox and a neighbor calls 911. The FD comes busting in to save your home.

Welcome to the paranoid life. It is almost impossible never to admit a stranger into your home unless you can fix everything yourself, never have anything delivered, etc. You also make yourself a huge target for burglary and violent crime (depending on who the competition might be around you, if you deal, or anyone thinks you do). I've had friends have their plants stolen from pretty secure operations. And then your burglar knows where you are in case you ever try again, or he may just assume you will. And he has a lovely little nugget to trade if he's ever nicked.

Just sayin', is all. Your guess is as good as mine. Growing your own herbal products can be a fun and educational hobby. Or it can lead to relentless nightmares. So, of course, can buying the harmless natural product on the open market, and you can be damn sure your own stuff is clean and safe, which is a big plus. If you're talented with plants and start with good seed you can also make it strong as hell (most people mess this part up).

I love this country. I truly do. I also love the deep green color of AskMe.
posted by fourcheesemac at 6:38 PM on March 10, 2006

My brother lives in rural central Pennsylvania. Someone was growing a few plants in a compound bucket on the back porch of an unused building on his property. It was spotted by helicopter surveillance, they believed it wasn't his and took it away.
posted by StickyCarpet at 6:41 PM on March 10, 2006

More on FLIR.
posted by fourcheesemac at 7:05 PM on March 10, 2006

And rereading the question I realize you are probably in the UK, Canada, or Australia, so my rant about the US war on drugs is a derail of sorts. But the principles of detection, and the technologies, are the same. The FLIR article I posted mentions a recent Canadian court decision that gives the Candaian cops more power (on paper) than US cops to detect indoor operations with infrared.
posted by fourcheesemac at 7:09 PM on March 10, 2006

Oh please. You can grow pot with florescent grow lights, you have a basic long tube light, 40 watts doubled up on an $8-$10 florescent light fixture

No offense delmoi, but your weed sucks. Everyone I know who runs a grow op in Canukistan are using HPS lights, usually at least 400watts a bulb. And although these are small ops, the stuff they grow wins cups. Still, like others said, 400w, or even 1000w isn't a big deal, as long as you pay the bill. Where you get nailed besides dealing is venting the smell and harvest time. If you're in the burbs it's not a problem, but here in the city...
posted by furtive at 7:09 PM on March 10, 2006

sjvilla79 is in Australia.
posted by Count Ziggurat at 7:22 PM on March 10, 2006

Yeah, law enforcement officials have lots of pretty toys to play with. However, every bust I've ever heard of involved one or more of the Holy Trinity - Smell, Sell, and Tell.
posted by Afroblanco at 8:37 PM on March 10, 2006

I don't know what kind of lights one would need to do this... But if they caught the dudes in Kylllo, through the walls of a house, then the lights have to be pretty fucking powerful (hot), right?
posted by zpousman at 8:38 PM on March 10, 2006

Here's an operation in a cave, underneath a house in Nashville, Tennessee. A secret hydraulic door in the garage led to a concrete ramp extending 50 yards into the ground; inside the cave were living quarters with an escape tunnel and secret hatch hidden beneath a rock on the outside. The elaborate set-up allowed the farmers to harvest every 60 days, resulting in multi-million dollar sales. One of the guys busted was living in a house on the water in Florida and had a nice yacht. An agent in Nashville worked on the case for five years before the warrant was finally served in December.
posted by fandango_matt at 9:00 PM on March 10, 2006

That cave is beautiful work.

There are techniques for growing strong stuff under fluorescents, but it's tricky. HPS is the current gold standard. And that stuff gets hot.

In those cave photos you see two different light setups. Fluorescents appear to have been used for germination, and HPS (or possibly MH?) for flowering. That's the pro approach.
posted by fourcheesemac at 9:39 PM on March 10, 2006

the Holy Trinity - Smell, Sell, and Tell

Don't forget plain-jane stupidity. I wonder how many grow operations are uncovered because the owners break some other, unrelated law that ends up exposing the operation?

"Your Ferrari registration expired. You'll have to get that taken care of."
"Uhh, yeah."
"Yep. It's a real nice car. How'd you pay for it? You a doctor or something?"
"Umm, uhh...uhh..."

posted by frogan at 9:51 PM on March 10, 2006

You don't suppose the cops run the hydroponics store?
Nah, too easy. They'd make money and get the equipment back.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 10:22 PM on March 10, 2006

Many of the issues have been covered. If it is a big enough setup, thermal imaging and power consumption. This is very unlikely until you start to get into setups with multiple high-intensity fixtures, talking thousand watt range devices. In the US, at times equipment manufacturers who advertised in magazines like High Times have been raided and their customer lists shook down. But chudmonkey is correct, it is almost always informants. Odor and bad luck are probably the next most common culprits. And I understand that in Australia they have started browsing online forums to catch people asking suspiciously "just curious" questions about home growing. Nah, I was just kidding about that last one. The fact is that if the odor is controlled, very small operations are extremely hard to dectect and rarely get busted without an informant being involved.
posted by nanojath at 11:06 PM on March 10, 2006

On a semi-related note, there are always auctions where police sell off seized property. There are always loads of grow lights for sale. I just wonder who'd be dumb enough to buy them without a really well demonstrated need. They usually go real cheap.
posted by RustyBrooks at 11:31 AM on March 11, 2006

I would bet by now they know who you are and have a good idea who your "mate" is !
posted by orlin at 1:18 PM on March 11, 2006

Grow operations need a good amount of power that is on specific timed schedules. (Please, no grower uses low-wattage fluorescent..) The power company flags residential power draws that match these criteria. There is no way that you can hide the power draw from a good sized grow-op. Typical residential power use does not run on a consistent 7 day/wk, 12-hr schedule during daylight hours. Modern computer-controlled meters can give a pretty accurate description of the hourly power usage. More advanced methods of detection are rare and can usually be found only in areas of known concentrations of growers;i.e. Humboldt County, etc.

The only way to get around it is to hide the power draw with a reasonable commercial use, or steal the power, or divert the draw from multiple sources. Or use natural light. If your crop is small then it is easier to hide and doesn't show up on the power company records as easily.

The most important thing is to tell nobody about your op, not even your closest friends. It doesn't take much for word to spread and before you know it, the cops are busting down your doors. Also don't grow in your house or near your house, keep it far away, preferably some place that can't be traced to you.
posted by JJ86 at 3:49 PM on March 11, 2006

Besides the police, power companies get nosy too. I read a number of garden magazines (the legit kind), and I remember reading an article about the latest types of African violets. The story featured a photo of a nice little old lady holding one of her prize-winning violets, who bred and propagated her plants in a whole room of her house. The article said that one day, a representative of the power company came by her house and wanted to poke around to see why the consumption rate was so high, and whether perhaps her electricity was "leaking"--he thought she was running a grow-op!

The lesson? When running a grow-op, for legal plants or otherwise, use solar power!
posted by Asparagirl at 6:07 PM on March 11, 2006

RustyBrooks writes "On a semi-related note, there are always auctions where police sell off seized property. There are always loads of grow lights for sale. I just wonder who'd be dumb enough to buy them without a really well demonstrated need."

If you pay cash, no problem.
posted by Mitheral at 6:33 PM on March 12, 2006

The only way to get around it is to hide the power draw with a reasonable commercial use, or steal the power, or divert the draw from multiple sources. Or use natural light. If your crop is small then it is easier to hide and doesn't show up on the power company records as easily.

You are talking completely out of your ass. As you can see the in the pot cave link, the grower did in fact use fluorescents.
posted by delmoi at 7:32 PM on March 12, 2006

delmoi showed his ignorance by spouting: You are talking completely out of your ass. As you can see the in the pot cave link, the grower did in fact use fluorescents.

OMG, you really are as bright as a 5w fluorescent, aren't you? These lights are starter fluorescent lights, because normal HID lights would fry the little seedlings. But as soon as the plants are ready they are transferred to HID lights to, you know, actually grow the plants. These lights are HID, not fluorescents. Before you start talking trash, know of what you talk.
posted by JJ86 at 6:14 AM on March 13, 2006

There is a method for growing under only fluorescents for quality. Plants are kept small and bushy, and lights very close to the plants. Flowering cycle is accelerated (sometimes with adjunct C02, always by accelerating the length of the "day" on an artifically accelerated cycle). It can be done, but it's precision work. Natural spectrum fluorescents actually provide the best mix of light colors of any option short of sunlight, just not enough of it. But any grower uses fluorescents for starting seedlings. As JJ86 says, HIDs will fry the babies. And the babies don't need a lot of light.

I saw an operation in Amsterdam (in a magazine) that used tubular skylights to deliver very bright sunlight to a crop in a sealed interior room. Very slick. There are very interesting skylight technologies out there now that concentrate and amplify very small surface area sunlight sources.
posted by fourcheesemac at 12:17 PM on March 13, 2006

JJ86: I've smoked pot that was grown entirely under florecent lights, in setups I saw with my own two eyes. You may very well belive that that's imposible, but you're wrong.
posted by delmoi at 8:40 PM on March 13, 2006

delmoi: I never said it was impossible, I said, "Please, no grower uses low-wattage fluorescent..". Understand the difference? I too have grown under fluorescent, but for production of high-quality plants, it is not typically done. Even with broad-spectrum fluorescents, the quality isn't there compared to HID. fourcheesemac mentioned that some growers use fluorescents, but it could be for a plant variation modified for the different spectrum. For everything you ever wanted to know about growing read Ed Rosenthal's books.
posted by JJ86 at 6:52 AM on March 14, 2006

Ed Rosenthal is a god in the growing community. He's got a terrific [WARNING!! very NSFW] website [WARNING!! very NSFW!] but, alas, the section on lighting solutions generates a database error page at the moment.

JJ86 I do believe there are species that do better than others under fluorescents.

Anyways, I've been led to believe by those who engage in this ilegal activity -- of course I have not myself -- that the very best grows under old fashioned sunlight in Hawaii and possibly in Southeast Asia as well, though others say that they've had hydro that blew away anything else they'e ever tried. Quality is indeed the point of DIY, with money savings a distant second. But very few people who DIY on a small scale manage to outpace the quality of the better commercial and medicinal varieties on the open market in enlightened places. You have to be serious about indoor horticulture to do it well. If you can't even make houseplants happy, don't bother. There's nothing worse than bad homegrown, or so I hear. It's like bad homebrewed beer.
posted by fourcheesemac at 8:17 PM on March 14, 2006

Sorry for my lateness back to this post. Thanks for all your answers.
posted by sjvilla79 at 7:34 PM on April 4, 2006

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