Democracy is messy, and even in states where cannabis is legalized and widely accepted, there are still plenty of people who have a major beef with the plant and any who grow it. When one of them files a complaint with local or state government, their concern is usually about the environmental effects of a grow operation, or an odor complaint. It isn’t usually about the noise.
However, according to a complaint recently filed with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the noise from cannabis operations is a real problem. It’s not a noise the human ear can detect, but the sound generated by the cheap electrical ballasts some operations use to limit the amount of current fed to their grow lights, and it frequently interferes with ham radio signals.
“It often sounds like the kind of harsh, grating static generated by lightning strikes, but it doesn’t stop,” said Tom Thompson, an amateur radio operator in Boulder, Colorado. In Maine, retired Coast Guard officer Roger Johnson figured out the problem for himself by driving up and down local roads with a spectrum analyzer hooked to a laptop. His quest ended at the property of a grower who had no idea he was upsetting anyone.
The complaint was filed by the American Radio Relay League, a 166,000 member organization which wants growers to be aware that cheap ballasts may have phony FCC-compliance stickers. Ballast is supposed to be approved by the FCC, and not to emit radio waves strong enough to cause a problem under expected usage loads. However, grow lighting is powerful, and an indoor grower with cheap ballast can be unwittingly putting out as much radio interference as a 1,000 watt AM radio station.
“I went out and bought one of the cheap ballasts you can get at the big box stores and tested it,” said Mike Gruber, a radio interference expert with the league. “It was producing 640 times the level of interference put out by a legal unit.”
After several run-ins with independent cannabis growers, Thompson made his own filtering device that suppresses noisy ballasts and started churning out copies. “I go to the properties of independent pot growers and give them a filter and instructions on how to install it. Some won’t cooperate, but most do.”
The new FCC Chairman, Ajit Pai, has praised legislation supporting amateur radio operators, who act as a backup communications network in emergencies. However, the agency has shied away from issuing a strong statement of policy. “The FCC takes all interference issues seriously and sends warning letters after receiving complaints about unlawful interference, including from lighting,” said spokesman Will Wiquist.
For the time being, municipalities are more likely to step in, like occurred in Kalkaska, Michigan last year. There, the village began requiring that all local growers use FCC-compliant lighting equipment.
Back in Maine, growers like Erin Worthing aren’t waiting for an ultimatum. He only uses FCC-approved lighting on his plants because he says it leads to a higher quality product. Besides, as he put it, “Under the current climate, we don’t want feds knocking on doors.”