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'Legal' pot grows often linked to other crimes
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The shooting death of a 70-year-old Hilmar man whose home was invaded may be linked to a state sanctioned legal marijuana grower who frequented the house.

Merced County authorities say the motive of the suspects who broke into the home of Roberto Solorio on April 2 may have been trying to get their hands on marijuana from an acquaintance of the victim since the victim himself was not growing pot.

The murder underscores the often understated reality that serious crimes are occurring because of the state's controversial practice of the state issuing medical marijuana cards. Ceres Police officials stated they've handled many crimes associated with legal pot grows.

"It's true that people who are truly growing it for their own use, some do have issues," said Deputy Chief Mike Borges. "If it becomes known they have it, people will target them and try to steal their marijuana."

Borges noted that his officers have handled several cases where people who claim they were growing pot legally and hold medicinal marijuana cards have been the victims of robberies or burglaries.

An Evans Road resident had two unwelcome intruders, once a burglary and the other an assault, said Borges.

A recent police pursuit that started in the Service and Moore roads area and terminated in San Joaquin County involved burglars who tried to get to pot from a legal grow.

In February 2011, a resident of the 900 block of Stone Springs Drive fired shots at intruders trying to get to his medicinal marijuana.

Ceres code enforcement officers have discovered some illegal pot grows set up in vacant homes. In most cases, the growers have illegally tampered with the electrical supply to get lights on indoor plants.

Borges said it's illegal for people to grow pot - even if they have a card - on someone else's property. The people responsible for one of the largest grows found by Ceres police (in the Hackett/Blaker area) thought they could section off the backyard for grows for multiple card holders. Borges said that violated state law.

"Each one had a letter posted, which was illegal because the law states you must grow it on your own premises."

In a recent Ceres search warrant location, the son of a card holder tried to use the parent's card as reason for growing. Instead it helped in the conviction.

Borges also suspects that many cardholders are illegally selling their excess marijuana. Those who sell their own pot can face felonious charges of possession for sale.

Murky and conflicting laws don't help police.

"There's a lot of ins and outs that makes it difficult for us to police," said Borges. "We don't know what is a legal amount. A doctor could say 10 pounds for this guy is legal and one pound legal for me."

Supporters of the state's medicinal marijuana law applaud it for allowing people who suffer from disease and other ailments to get relief. Others say the law - which conflicts with federal law - allows anyone to make a claim to get it and a cover to grow it to sell it.

"About five years ago you could go to Oakland and complain about anger management issues, pay $100 for a card, and you could legally grow pot."

How do others find out about legal pot grows in order to burglarize or invade? The owners themselves often tip off outsiders, said Borges. Some growers often post copies of their authorization on a door or fence in an effort to keep police from bothering them but unwittingly inviting others in.

"Some have posted their letter on their door to keep police from knocking on their doors or gardens. They're advertising the fact that they have a grow."

Borges recommends anyone who has a legal grow to "not advertise the fact."

Aside from the legal and crime issues, Ceres firefighters have had their share of work associated with pot grows. A home in the 1000 block of Hackett Road sustained $35,000 damage in a November 2010 fire caused when lights on plants drew too much power and overheated the electrical lines. The owners of the home had a permit from the state to grow up to 80 pot plants for medicinal purposes, but their electrical service could not handle the load from the indoor lights.