LaVina Collenberg thought she had ideal tenants for her tidy ranch-style home on the outskirts of Arcata, Calif., a university town nestled in the redwoods of the North Coast. Then the 74-year-old widow received an urgent call last September from a neighbor, who said firefighters had descended on the house she had rented to a pleasant young man from Wisconsin. She found her charred and sooty rental filled with grow lights and 3-foot-high marijuana plants. Seeds were germinating in the spa. Water from the growing operation had soaked through the carpeting and sub-flooring. Air vents had been cut into the new roof. A fan had fallen over, causing the fire.
Law enforcement officials estimate that as many as 1,000 of the 7,500 homes in this Humboldt County community are being used to cultivate marijuana, slashing into the housing stock, spreading building-safety problems and sowing neighborhood discord. Indoor pot farms proliferated in recent years as California communities implemented Proposition 215, the statewide medical marijuana measure passed overwhelmingly a dozen years ago. A backlash over the effects and abuses of legally sanctioned marijuana growing has emerged in some of the most liberal parts of the state. The experience of Arcata, a bastion of cannabis culture, reveals the unintended consequences of the 1996 Compassionate Use Act, designed to provide relief to AIDS patients, cancer victims and others.