We're inside a former safe factory next to the freeway in a certain East Side neighborhood, and we are looking at It.
“It” is a metal box at least six feet high, easily the biggest object in this otherwise empty rectangular room that, at one-quarter of the 18,000-square-foot warehouse's ground floor, is also huge.
Farther down a narrow hallway, there are three other rooms, one of which is the same size as the room where we're standing. All of this space serves the same purpose, thanks to It.
It cost nearly $300,000, and its sheer importance delayed this entire operation for nine months while the owners waited for Pacific Gas & Electric Co. to hook It up to the power grid.
It is an electrical box big enough to handle a 3,600-amp power load. That's how much juice is required to grow as much as 3,000 pounds of marijuana annually, which is the purpose of this factory, the biggest and most professional cannabis growhouse I have ever seen.
This is one of the nine city-licensed commercial marijuana-growing facilities in San Francisco — the only city in California to inspect and license indoor cannabis cultivation — which means that It could be the anchor of one of the most sophisticated marijuana-production facilities in the world.
“Growhouse” doesn't do it justice.
The empty cavern where It lives will someday produce 200 pounds of marijuana per harvest, with five harvests a year. From there we head down a hallway lined with hoses and pipes, the system that injects nutrient mixes into the plants' automatic irrigation setup. Our guide opens a door and we peek inside: Set up on racks that move side to side, just big enough for a gardener to squeeze through, are dozens and dozens of marijuana plants.
This room, the smallest on the floor, is producing 100 pounds per harvest right now, though the plantkeepers are still fine-tuning details such as which strains do best with each other, and the exact CO2 mix to inject into the room.
This is the property of a prominent San Francisco-licensed medical cannabis dispensary, where the pot grown here is sold. It's also what a typical commercial marijuana “factory” in Fresno or San Bernadino might look like once California legalizes marijuana.
This is also what the end of the illicit grow house — stinking up the block or burning it down — looks like.
Marijuana grows perfectly well outside. It was the plant's outlaw status that made indoor cultivation the standard. This reality, along with skyrocketing demand, sparked a cottage industry in California over the past decade that is unlike any other in recent memory.
Amateurs invested in grow lights and ballasts and converted rooms, floors, and entire homes into greenhouses in an attempt to cash in. Criminals followed suit, turning houses abandoned in the subprime meltdown in Vallejo and Stockton into pot factories, leading the citizenry to suspiciously inspect neighbors' garbage for stems and leaves.
For once, crime wasn't the problem.
It was fire.
Indoor grows can use as much as 200 watts per square foot. That explains how indoor marijuana grows use as much as 9 percent of all household electricity consumed in the entire state, as a 2011 report from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories scientist Evan Mills suggested.
That's a lot of electricity. And with 4,600 pounds of carbon emissions required for every pound of indoor cannabis, that's also a lot of fuel. Since 45 percent of California's energy comes from natural gas, that's a lot of fracking.
To cut down on bills, illegal growers would rig the house's wiring directly to the grid, bypassing the PG&E meter. This, along with sending thousands and thousands of watts into an electrical setup designed for a fraction of that load, meant growhouses often catch on fire. From 2009 to 2013, fire crews responded to blazes at 15 growhouses in San Francisco, according to the Fire Department. In May 2009, a firefighter was severely injured fighting a growhouse fire, and in September of that year, an illegal wiring setup touched off a massive fire that burned six warehouses and caused $4.6 million in damage.
This leads us back to It and why an industrial-grade electrical hookup is so important. This rig has passed city and Fire Department inspections. The cops know It is here. As do the locals, who say that having a pot factory down the street is a “non-issue.”
“We complain about illegal grows, about fires, about trespass grows, about people taking water from streams,” says the operation's overseer, speaking on condition of anonymity since his permitted enterprise still breaks federal law. “That's all happened because government has failed to regulate.
“Here in San Francisco, we have no fires, we have people making a wage and getting healthcare, we have good relations with our neighbors. Because we're regulated.”