Drug houses still hunted by city inspectors
Inspectors arrived at the house with a police officer at 9 a.m., five days after warning the homeowner they had reason to look around.
The city’s electrical and fire safety inspection team had flagged the house for its “excessive” use of electricity—often the sign of a marijuana grow operation.
Each year, the team inspects homes with higher-than-average electricity use—more than 93 kilowatts per day—based on data provided by B.C. Hydro, along with following up on tips and RCMP investigations. The team focuses on safety, not putting growers behind bars.
In the case of this house, Hydro data showed, on average, 275 kilowatt hours of electricity was being used—over six times the daily consumption of an typical Metro Vancouver house.
The owner granted access to a fire inspector, electrical inspector and an RCMP officer for the Sept. 7, 2011 inspection, according to one of several records obtained by The Richmond Review. But the team found no evidence of a grow-op, nor did it find any wiring problems.
It did find, however, that electricity powered all heating units and appliances, along with a hot water tank and hot tub. An inspector also estimated the home’s analog electricity meter was reading 24 per cent higher than it should be, and noted a lack of insulation in the home.
Homes tapped for inspections face a $4,200 fee if a grow-op is found. In this case, the city waived the inspection fee, suggesting the homeowner contact B.C. Hydro regarding the inconsistent meter.
Growers get creative
In the first year of the inspection program, 2007, 64 grow-ops were uncovered in 126 inspections. In 2008, just six grow-ops were found in 52 inspections.
The city temporarily shut down the program later that year order to make changes to address a B.C. Supreme Court ruling, which said police had too great a presence in inspections.
Although more recent data wasn’t available (The Review requested the information, but it was not provided by press time), fewer grow-ops are being uncovered by inspectors.
A 2009 staff report suggested the drop could be due to grow-ops locating elsewhere or finding alternative sources of power—including stealing power—to stay undetected.
“The operators are just discovering new methods and places to produce their product,” said the report from deputy fire chief Kim Howell and then RCMP inspector Janis Gray, who added abandoning the program would simply invite grow-ops to return.
Bypassing a Hydro meter can help grow operators avoid detection by inspectors, but not necessarily the RCMP.
On Sept. 30, 2010, Richmond RCMP’s marijuana enforcement team executed a search warrant at an unoccupied house in Richmond. Officers found a grow-op and a heavily-altered electrical system. The next day, the city’s electrical and fire safety inspection team hand-posting a notice of inspection on the residence and delivered a copy to the homeowner.
Two weeks later, the homeowner had yet to respond, so a Richmond court justice granted the inspection team an administrative warrant, giving the team permission to enter the home without the owner’s consent.
Inspectors found an active marijuana grow-op, complete with plants, grow lights, fans, moisture damage and mould. Police had already cut power to the house, where inspectors found serious problems.
“The inspection team discovered significant fire and electrical safety concerns such that immediate action was required to eliminate the hazard to life and property,” according to the inspection report.
Those responsible for the plants had bypassed the Hydro meter to power the operation, located upstairs in a single-family home.
In this case, the homeowner would be responsible for the inspection fee, along with all costs associated with restoring the home to a safe condition and followup inspections.
Electrical hazards common
Operators of large grow-ops often steal electricity, according to Jordan Diplock and Darryl Plecas of the University of the Fraser Valley.
The researchers estimated the total annual theft of electricity by grow operators in B.C. to be $109.4 million, according to their April 2011 report, “The Increasing Problem of Electrical Consumption in Indoor Marihuana Grow Operations in British Columbia.”
Stealing power or not, grow-ops present significant electrical hazards to occupants of a house and neighbours.
Diplock and Plecas found that houses with grow-ops are at least five times more likely to catch fire than normal residential homes.
“The changes made to houses and other buildings to supply power to marihuana growing operations require special training, certification and inspection to ensure proper function and safety. However, in the pursuit of high profits, growers are more concerned with avoiding detection than preventing electrical hazards,” said the report.
Such electrical hazards are even found in legal grow-ops.
On Nov. 17, 2011, the city’s inspection team probed an owner-occupied Richmond house with a daily electricity use of 120 kilowatt hours. In previous years, the house just used one-quarter that amount.
Inspectors found 72 marijuana plants growing in a garage. But this operation was legal, as the homeowner had a medical marijuana grow-op licence.
Yet inspectors noted the grow-op was designed without an electrical permit or inspection. The homeowner was handed a seven-day order for a certified electrician to go over all the connections.