San Francisco Police Chief George Gascon today decried the mushrooming of large-scale illegal pot grows in the city, especially in the Sunset District, as a “public safety” hazard that requires the help of residents.

Police said today they have uncovered sophisticated illegal marijuana grow operations at 36 homes in the past six months, most in the department’s Taraval District, which includes parts of the Sunset, Taraval and Ingleside neighborhoods. Others have been found in warehouses in other parts of the city, including the Bayview District.

“This is not about marijuana use or no marijuana use, this is really about public safety,” Gascon said today at a news conference also attended by several police and fire officials, and Sunset District Supervisor Carmen Chu.

Gascon said it was important “to educate the public about the level of danger” from the illegal operations.

“These are not situations where you’re finding one or two plants,” Chu agreed.

In the Taraval District raids, more than 8,200 plants were seized, as well as nearly $85,000 in cash, 20 firearms and other drugs such as methamphetamine, police said. A total of 44 arrests were made.

Most were charged with cultivation and possession of marijuana for sale, according to the district attorney’s office.

“I think it’s obvious it’s all about the money,” police Cmdr. John Murphy said.

Fire officials warned of the fire danger risk because of the large amounts of electricity required for the operations, and from some growers illegally bypassing electrical meters.

Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White said that because many homes in the city share common walls, the operations present a particular fire hazard to neighborhoods.

The fire department has been called to about two fires involving pot grows each year for the past seven years, according to Fire Marshall Barbara Schultheis.

“This number appears to be increasing,” Schultheis said, with four such cases already this year, including one where a firefighter was seriously injured by a collapsing structure.

Taraval Station Capt. Paul Chignell called the Sunset grow operations “a public safety epidemic.” He said the growers often use firearms to protect their operations from robbery by others.

Chignell also said the grows, in which some rented properties are torn up inside without informing the landlord, contribute to neighborhood blight.

Chignell speculated that marijuana cultivation in his district might be due to the relative ease with which people can rent homes in the Sunset, as well as the ocean breeze masking the smell.

Despite the operations already uncovered, “There are a lot more,” Chignell said. “There are others in the pipeline that we are investigating.”

“We encourage people to come forward,” he said.

Of the 36 grows uncovered since March, Chignell said four of them were “legitimate medical marijuana operations.” Those cultivators weren’t arrested and they were allowed to continue, he said.

But of the others, Gascon said there were indications with some of a high degree of organization that may be funded by cartels. He declined to discuss specific cases.

“The primary money maker for the Mexican cartels continues to be marijuana,” he said, as an example.

Police said they held today’s news conference to continue to educate the public about the problem, noting that tips from neighbors about suspicious behavior have led to the majority of the raids.

“We’re hoping to come up with solutions that are holistic,” said Gascon.

Gascon wanted to separate the public safety issue from the ongoing debate about recreational or medicinal marijuana use.

“It has nothing to do with the merits one way or the other” of marijuana use, he said.

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