SUGARLAND, Texas—They’re sophisticated growing operations that can make millions of dollars a year, but an explosion in the number of marijuana grow houses turning up in suburban Houston neighborhoods has prosecutors and detectives calling for changes.
"I enjoy this neighborhood," said Robert Smith as he stood outside his Sugar Land home. "It’s usually pretty quiet."
But that doesn’t mean Smith didn’t have complaints about his neighbor on Sparrow Branch Court.
"I used to get upset because they wouldn’t take care of their lawn," explained Smith. "The chinch bugs would start eating away at my grass."
In an instant, landscaping became the least of Smith’s concerns.
He was inside his home when he noticed the flames lapping at his fence. Investigators say someone cut a natural gas line while trying to re-route electrical service to Smith’s neighbor’s house.
"I came out and grabbed my little hose there," said Smith as he stood next to what remained of the charred fence. "I was going to town trying to keep it from burning."
Witnesses told police the "mystery handyman" took off before firefighters arrived. Investigators soon found out why. Inside the home next to Smith’s, police found 150 marijuana plants.
Smith was stunned.
"The only time I’ve ever seen a grow house is when I’m watching a cop show on TV," said Smith.
Locally, detectives say cases like this one are turning up more and more. Instead of filling upscale suburban homes with families, drug traffickers are filling the homes with pot plants.
"We’re seeing an average of 400 to 500 plants per house," explained a detective with the Fort Bend County Sheriff’s Office. The detective asked to remain anonymous because he often works undercover.
"They’re just average people," the detective explained. "I don’t think you could just look at them and say, ‘Hey, they’re growing marijuana.’"
Numbers obtained by the KHOU, 11 News I-Team show how big the problem’s become.
In 2009, Fort Bend County detectives busted two grow houses. By 2011, the number had swelled to 11. Already, in the first four months of 2012, investigators raided nine different marijuana grow houses in Fort Bend County alone.
"I believe 99.9 % of the homeowners have no idea," estimated the detective.
Cops say it’s easy for growers to blend in in the suburbs. As more homes hit the rental market, it offers more opportunities for drug traffickers to move into a neighborhood and set up shop.
Detectives say that’s what happened on Shifting Sands Lane near Katy. Sheriff department video taken inside the home showed rooms full of marijuana plants being grown, cut, dried and ready for sale on area streets.
"This was a surprise," said Rene Divina. He lives two houses away from the home where investigators say they found the drugs. "We don’t want this kind of thing in our neighborhood."
Investigators believe the growth of these houses comes down to money. Police estimate that in one year a grower with 600 plants could make millions of dollars.
"It’s total risk, reward," explained Brad Hart, a prosecutor with the Harris County District Attorney’s Office. Hart says right now, the law gives the grower next door a break.
"Any time you see a case where see you see the number of plants and realize how much money these guys are making and the most we might get out of them is two years in state jail, it’s insulting really," said Hart.
In Texas, growers cannot be criminally charged based on the number of marijuana plants they’re caught with. Instead, prosecutors must rely on the weight of so-called usable product. That’s something Hart and others want changed. They believe Texas should join a list of 16 other states in which the more plants growers have, the more prison time they face.
"If the laws remain the way they are now, do you think this will only continue to grow as a problem?" the I-Team asked Hart.
"Yes, no doubt," the prosecutor said.
That’s unacceptable to people living near the grow houses.
"Whatever they need to do to get this out of our neighborhood, I’d really appreciate that," said Divina.
Meanwhile, homeowners like Smith are now left wondering what else is hiding in that quiet neighborhood.
"It’s really not what a community should be about," lamented Smith. "You should be able to trust your neighbors to a certain extent and hope they wouldn’t be doing things that endanger."
Police warn that it can be difficult to tell if you’re living next door to a grow house. They say possible warning signs include homes with windows that are covered-up, or evidence someone has tampered with the wiring outside the home. Detectives say growers will frequently steal the electricity they need to power the grow lights inside a drug house.