SEBRING - When methamphetamine is cooked inside a house, toxic vapors permeate the walls and get inside the air conditioner.
The atmosphere becomes so noxious, the house becomes uninhabitable. When meth-lab houses are cleaned up, the furniture and carpets are thrown out. Sometimes the Sheetrock and air handling ducts are removed, and in extreme situations, the entire house may be torn down.
Now, Sheriff Susan Benton is asking the same questions about marijuana grow-house operations, said her attorney Mike Durham. The sheriff has drafted a letter to the code enforcement officials in Highlands County, asking them to check out 28 grow-houses that were raided from Nov. 8, 2006 to May 15, 2007.
The problem: tetrahydrocannabinol, THC, the active ingredient in pot, may have infused everything in the houses, Durham said. Before the houses can be inhabited again, they need to be inspected.
But the problem is even bigger than that, he said.
When a marijuana farmer buys a house, they modify it extensively. One-thousand watt grow-lights are hung from the ceilings, propane heaters and extra air handlers are installed in hallways.
"Some of these houses are gorgeous," marveled Lisa Osha, a legal assistant at Highlands County Sheriff's office. "One of them had the biggest pool table I've ever seen."
Some structures are entirely converted to grow-house operations, in others, the living room, kitchen and a bedroom may remain intact so occupants can live there, Durham said. They have huge digital TVs and sound systems, usually rented or financed to the hilt, he said.
In one that Osha surveyed, the extra bathroom was gutted - ruined was her word - so extra air conditioning could be added.
Changes to the structure of the house to provide water, electrical wiring and ventilation may make the house uninhabitable for future residents, unless major repairs are made.
If the house isn't gutted, who knows what the future effects on occupants could be, Durham asked, as adults and children breathe in small amounts of THC, other marijuana residues, mold and mildew over a period of years.
Even if it's determined the house is environmentally safe, the property value of the house and of the other homes in the neighborhood may be ruined because of the notorious reputation, he speculated, just as if a famous murder had taken place there.
Finally, grow-houses have a humid atmosphere, so after the power is turned off and the occupants are arrested, mold gets in the homes, Osha said. In some houses, it's already present because the humidity wasn't properly handled before the occupants were arrested.
Even so, the owners of the homes want back in.
"We're getting calls from their attorneys, wanting to know when they can go back and clean up the homes," Durham said.
Neighbors are also calling, Durham said. They homes are often in fashionable neighborhoods, and the yards aren't being taken care of.
Benton Wants Pot Repository
The state needs a central library to serve as an evidence storehouse, Sheriff Benton said. Authorities could then link marijuana house in different jurisdictions and determined how or whether the occupants are or organized.
Benton and other local and state officials met Thursday with the Drug Enforcement Administration to develop a strategy, the Sun-Sentinel reported.
The problem is getting so prevalent, statewide intelligence is needed.
"We're so overwhelmed with the operational side of things, and we're only working in or own little functional jurisdictions," Benton told the Sun-Sentinel.