Caught Growing Weed in Miami? Good Luck Getting the Lights Turned Back On

Forty-three-year-old Alex Sanchez spent just one night in jail last October after he was arrested for growing weed at his house in Kendall. When he returned home, the electricity wasn’t on. Sanchez called to figure out what was up and stumbled upon a little-known county ordinance that prevented him from taking a hot shower or cooking himself dinner unless he forked over what amounted to his life savings.

That day, Sanchez learned he was on the hook for thousands of dollars in fees, inspection costs, permits, repairs, and, eventually, once all of that was paid off and completed, a four-figure deposit payable to Florida Power & Light.

He estimates he'll have to pay $10,000 to be able to flip on the TV or air conditioner again. Months after his arrest, he still doesn't have electricity at his house. 

"It’s unnecessary, and it's gratuitous," says Sanchez, who works as a golf instructor. "If you want to punish someone, put them in jail or put them on probation, but let them come home to a house with electricity. Even in jail, I would have gotten a hot shower and lights and air conditioning."

Miami-Dade's ordinance is aimed at shutting down commercial grow houses, which often rely on rerouting large amounts of power to keep their hydroponic setups online.

But records back up Sanchez's claim that he was hardly a marijuana kingpin. Miami-Dade Police arrested Sanchez after receiving a Crime Stoppers tip about a marijuana smell coming from his house on SW 127th Drive. When officers arrived at his home, they found a small hydroponic lab in one of the rooms, plus some loose and packaged marijuana scattered around the house. The total amount of weed: 1,587 grams, about 3.5 pounds.

"There were 18 to 20 cops that ran in here," Sanchez says. "You should have seen how pissed they were when they saw only six plants."

An arrest report says he told cops he sold weed "to subsidize his financial situation," something he adamantly denies saying. Sanchez says he never sold pot, and it doesn't appear from court records that police ever presented evidence of him doing so.

Instead, Sanchez says, he used marijuana as a sleep aid after trying a litany of prescription medicines that didn't work. 

"Paxil, Deproxin — all these things give you nightmares," he says. "I was diagnosed with PTSD and major depressive disorder, and [pot] is the only thing I've ever found in my life that helps me sleep."

That's the main reason Sanchez was indignant after learning of the ordinance requiring him to undergo a series of costly inspections — at a time when metro areas such as D.C., Denver, and Seattle have made it legal to grow weed for personal use, Florida has yet to legalize even medical marijuana.

The county ordinance about grow houses was adopted in June 2009 and went into effect the first day of 2010. To date, about 50 properties labeled as grow houses have been referred to the county's regulatory department by Miami-Dade Police. 

Once that happens, homeowners are required to pay a $375 processing fee and hire a contractor to complete four inspections: electrical, plumbing, mold, and structural. Sanchez says he received quotes ranging from $1,200 to $6,500. Once those are completed, he'll need to pull permits to fix whatever issues the contractor finds and then have a final inspection performed by the county. Only then can he ask FPL to restore the power, though he says he was told he would need to pay a $1,750 deposit upfront.

FPL declined to answer New Times' questions about how it works with law enforcement and the county in these situations, but Miriam Rossi, a spokeswoman for the county’s Department of Regulatory and Economic Resources, says the primary decision to disconnect the power lies with FPL. Rossi says that's because the owners of grow houses often modify their electrical systems to bypass the meter.

"This is an unsafe and very dangerous condition," she writes in an email.

And landlords, beware: Even in cases where it's the tenant at fault, the property owner is on the hook for the inspection costs and fees. That's what happened to one couple who rented out their home in the Redland to someone who used it as a full-scale marijuana grow lab.

Sanchez eventually pleaded guilty and was sentenced to three years of drug offender probation. Six months after his arrest, he still has not been able to come up with the money needed to restore his electricity.

The county is now attempting to condemn the house. Sanchez received a notice asking him to appear before the county’s unsafe structures appeal panel at the end of the month.

"Pot is harmless and didn't do anything but help me," Sanchez says. "I just want to get the word out. 

What I want is to let these guys know out there who are growing grass — and I don't think they're bad people — what's going on. This is the reality."

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