The marijuana industry and Uncle Sam haven't been on the same page for 80 years, but these days, in a unique bit of weirdness, it's not the U.S. Department of Justice that could create a problem for pot growers: It's the Federal Communications Commission. The FCC regulates the country's electronic communications, which is relevant because it turns out that, bizarrely, light ballasts used in the growing of cannabis emit radio-frequency interference that screws up amateur-radio transmissions being sent by local ham operators, a licensed, legally protected practice.
In a March 12 letter to the commission, the American Radio Relay League, the national association for amateur radio, complained that interference from grow lights was greatest in the medium- and high-frequency bands between 1.8 and 30 megahertz, and that it comes in no small amount.
"The level of conducted emissions from this [Lumatek LK1000 grow light] is so high that, as a practical matter, one RF ballast operated in a residential environment would create preclusive interference to Amateur radio HF communications throughout entire neighborhoods," wrote general counsel Christopher Imlay to acting chief of the FCC Spectrum Enforcement Division John Poutasse in the hopes the agency would halt sales.
Speaking to the Indy for the Pikes Peak Amateur Radio Emergency Service, John Bloodgood, call sign KD0SFY, says it's not just that the ballasts interfere with a hobby that claims over 700,000 nationwide and some 2,500 people in El Paso County; they make safety communications related to events like the Waldo Canyon Fire, or sudden weather patterns — local hams often partner with the National Weather Service, through its SKYWARN program — a lot trickier to convey.
"If you've ever listened to an AM radio broadcast, once in a while you'll hear this really bad pop or noise; or if you turn up the static in between FM channels, it can sound like that," says Bloodgood. "It can be pops, it can be a buzzing sound, whistles — just all kinds of different noises that we'll hear."
It's not like grow lights are the only culprit. Garage-door openers, TV antennae, telephone or speaker wires and a million other things can cause interference. At the same time, amateur-radio setups sometimes interfere with the work of neighbors, though shielding and other solutions — like talking about it — are often enough to fix the problem.
Still, the booming world of marijuana grows creates a new threat to clear channels, and for growers concerned about safety or detection, there's a reverse threat as well. The Fort Collins Coloradoan talked to local radio operator Tom Thompson for a June 5 article. Thompson used a portable system to determine the source of some interference, eventually finding it at a residential grow.
"If I can track this down, anybody can track this down," Thompson told the daily paper. "If I listen long enough, I can tell when they turn the lights off ... You can tell exactly when the harvest is."
But to Bloodgood, it's not about ratting out your neighbors, or even choosing sides in the marijuana battle, especially because, as he notes in a follow-up email, "MJ users and hams are not mutually exclusive groups." Only this: "Not trying to be a buzz-kill or to harsh people's mellow, just asking people to be good neighbors and please don't be upset if a ham radio operator, or any radio operator or even the FCC comes knocking."