Pot growers lure home invaders
Medical marijuana sites, especially, become targets for gunmen seeking cash
One October evening, just five months after buying a $400,000 home on a sleepy block in one of the better neighborhoods in Portland, a couple had some visitors.
Two men, one brandishing a gun, forced their way in the front door, used duct tape to tie up the couple and a friend. One of the men claimed he was looking for the dealer who hooked his sister on drugs.
Eventually, the men left the house, in the 4600 block of Southeast Madison Street, when the residents convinced them they had the wrong address.
On Dec. 5, their horrifying ordeal was demystified when Portland police officers searched the next-door neighbor's house, finding a sophisticated grow operation and 352 marijuana plants.
A medical-marijuana cardholder, Timothy Surprenant, 35, was arrested, cited and released a few hours later - having told them that the grow was for 'personal use.'
Police, however, suspect Surprenant's crop and cash were the real targets of the home invasion.
Athough exact figures are impossible to come by, police say the number of home invasions reported in Portland are on the rise, and are increasingly related to marijuana - especially medical marijuana.
In contrast to the middlin' weed of baby boomers' glory days, modern strains of marijuana are highly potent and go for $300 an ounce, turning patients and growers into targets.
While home invasions of drug dealers are not a new phenomenon, Sgt. Pat Walsh argues that the state's medical marijuana law has 'absolutely' made Portland a more target-rich environment by adding thousands of medical marijuana cardholders in Multnomah County alone.
A gunfight between a grower and a home invader in Portland is 'just a matter of time,' he says. 'And I think that when that day comes, people will (fault) the police.'
Several recent incidents
Medical marijuana advocates also say such invasions are not uncommon. But they say the lesson is not that the medical marijuana law is bad - it's that the criminal marijuana laws are.
'I think the solution is to end adult marijuana prohibition,' says Paul Stanford of the Hemp and Cannabis Foundation, which operates a chain of medical marijuana clinics in Oregon and other western states.
Police and growers say the home invaders hear about the marijuana grows through word of mouth from patients, or just by smelling the operation from outside the home.
There have been two other such crimes reported in just the past two weeks in Portland. Last week police responding to a disturbance call at a house in the 5200 block of Northeast 27th Avenue found traces of a marijuana grow, suggesting another home invasion. The case remains under investigation.
A few days before that, on Dec. 8, in what police believe to have been another medical marijuana-related home invasion, three men with guns forced their way into a home in the 2500 block of Southeast 168th Avenue, sticking guns into the face of a 16-year-old girl and pistol-whipping her 33-year-old stepfather.
In Portland, a couple of home invasions are reported each month, and 'more often than not' a medical marijuana cardholder is involved, Sgt. Dave Hendrie says.
Police can do little to stop these crimes. That's because so few are reported, and fewer still involve people willing to testify.
Invasions often unreported
Moreover, the gunplay that Walsh predicts for Portland already has happened elsewhere - with nonmedical growers.
In Clackamas County on Oct. 4, two members of a group of would-be home invaders were shot by marijuana growers in the 14500 block of Southeast 162nd Avenue.
Earlier, in 2001, a local drug dealer seeking a plea deal, Humberto Castro Soler Jr., told police that he had led a group that dressed in FBI baseball caps and coplike garb while raiding a series of dealers and pot growers.
Eventually, a raid in Clackamas County led to a gunfight and one of the intruders being killed. None of the raids were reported.
Medical marijuana growers similarly are 'afraid to call the police,' says Paul Loney, a longtime local medical marijuana advocate.
One reason is they risk having plants confiscated.
In August, police pulled over three men in a car in Southwest Portland who were believed to be casing a house. The men admitted that they were headed out to a marijuana grow; they carried a real-looking BB pistol and gloves.
'Where there's a lot of dope, there's a lot of cash,' said one of them, 27-year-old Nathan Baxter, according to a police report. He added that the group felt the robbery could score 18 to 20 pounds of marijuana, each one worth $2,200.
Police figured out who was targeted, and upon inspecting his home, hauled off plants they said he had no right to own; the grower said his cardholders' paperwork was just delayed.
'The irony is (the police) said they were protecting me from getting ripped off - even as they took 21 of my plants,' the grower told the Portland Tribune, on condition of anonymity. He added that he suspects a former medical marijuana patient tipped off the would-be robbers.
To prevent a recurrence, he says he has purchased a sophisticated surveillance system, motion detectors and burglar alarm - to go with the semiautomatic pistol he already owned.
Other growers use shotguns and dogs, while running their ventilation through cat litter to prevent passers-by from detecting their grows.
Ideas may go to ballot
Home invasions are likely to be part of the case made by Republican former lawmaker and possible attorney general candidate Kevin Mannix in an initiative for which he is gathering signatures.
It would substitute marinol tablets, containing the active ingredient in marijuana - for the leafy, home-grown stuff currently used in the program.
Mannix contends that it would curb abuses and unintended consequences of the program.
But medical marijuana advocates say Mannix's initiative would make medicine much more expensive for needy patients. They are floating an initiative of their own, which would create a series of approved farms and dispensaries, thus decreasing the number of grow operations.
Both could reach voters on the November ballot, giving voters a choice of which way to go.
Walsh says he thinks people should be aware of the risks they face when they pick up a card and grow their own. And their neighbors should know that while the growers next door may seem like nice, hippie gardeners, many of them are packing heat.
'They know they need to defend their crops,' he says.