Pubdate: Sat, 01 Jul 2000
Source: Kentucky Post (KY)
Copyright: 2000 Kentucky Post
Contact:  421 Madison Avenue, Coviington, Ky. 41011
Author: Shelly Whitehead


LONDON - Concealed bamboo stakes surrounded one pot crop. A board full of 
steel spikes capable of piercing a pair of hard-soled boots protected another.

But few growers could match the ingeniousness of the grower who used 
copperhead snakes enclosed in concealed mesh to stand guard over his 
plants. The mesh was rigged in such a way that it would be sliced open - 
and the snakes set free - should anyone attempt to harvest the marijuana.

When state troopers found the illegal patch in the Eastern Kentucky 
mountains and tried to cut it down, they released the venomous sentries. 
One trooper was bitten and nearly lost his hand from the poison.

Kentucky State Police are launching another season of search-and-destroy 
missions against the marijuana patches hidden across the mountains, often 
on public lands.

As one of the country's largest marijuana-producing states, Kentucky has 
become a battleground in the nation's "war on drugs." Here in the 
mountains, it's the growers versus the Kentucky Marijuana Strike Force, a 
multi-agency team with members from the state police, the National Guard, 
the Civil Air Patrol and the U.S. Forest Service.

"This is the rural version of the inner-city drug scene," said a state 
police officer.

"Drive-by shootings on those streets can be just as random as the traps out 
here on public lands . . . We have farmers call us because they think 
they've got pot out on their land, but they don't want to go out there 
because they're afraid of being shot or hurt."

Often the illegal patches are in some of the Appalachian hills' more remote 
parts, concealed by thick woods and away from roads. At this time of year 
in Eastern Kentucky, the helicopter is the drug fighter's best friend, 
enabling Strike Force spotters to survey large areas, then drop in by 
rappelling from the helicopters.

"I wonder sometimes how people get out there to plant this stuff," Lawson 
said. "I mean, we have to rappel people into a lot of these plots. There's 
not a road or a trail or anything to get to them."

In the last few years, marijuana growth and eradication has been made even 
more difficult by a new factor: The growers are starting to spread out 
their assets in order to protect their investments. Instead of one patch of 
60 plants, a grower today may spread 10 plots of six plants across the side 
of one densely forested hill. This sprinkling of seeds creates a crop 
that's harder to see from the air and harder to find on the ground.

With their helicopter grounded because of foul weather one day this week, 
troopers on foot slashed through a Laurel County hillside covered with 
weeds, berry vines and brush.

"Here's some here - now, this is pretty tall for this time of year," said 
Trooper Kevin Minor.

Nearby, Trooper Randy McCarty pointed at an empty can of gold spray paint.

"That was probably theirs," he said, referring to the people who planted 
the marijuana.

"They were probably huffing paint. For some reason, huffers like to use 
gold spray paint."

To follow these Strike Force members for even a few minutes through this 
solid forest growth is to wonder how even a single plant is ever 
eradicated. The sheer physical exertion of getting to the patches is 
overwhelming. Yet it is only a single element of the job.

The Kentucky Marijuana Strike Force, begun in 1990, has four full-time 
members, working leads and managing the program year-round. But in the 
summer, as the illegal crop flourishes, a small army of trained experts in 
various fields converges on a tiny cinderblock building in London for long 
days in the air and across the mountains and forests of southeastern 
Kentucky. As many as 150 people from the participating agencies are 
assigned to the Strike Force at peak times.

All around the building, dark-green Army helicopters and Humvees stand at 
the ready. Dozens of combat fatigue-clad National Guardsmen, gray-suited 
state troopers and volunteer Civil Air Patrol members work and talk and wait.

Inside the building, maps of every size and variety line walls and fill 
cases. Sometimes informants, obvious by their dress, come and go.

Everyone has a specific role here, including helicopter pilots and 
spotters, who find the weed from the air.

"Some people just have a knack for seeing it," Lawson said.

"They can see what you don't see. It may be that it's a different shade 
than the surrounding growth, or that the serration of the leaves makes it 
look fuzzy from the air. I liken it to other police work, really. You just 
look for the thing that doesn't belong there."

Finding the weed that doesn't belong doesn't often lead to the person who 
illegally planted it. The pot tends to be planted by trespassers, not by 
landowners, and in many instances on public lands. Planting on public land, 
though, can result in federal charges in federal court, where penalties are 
more severe. So some growers are retreating to solely private property.

Sometimes, Lawson said, the booby traps can provide tips about the grower. 
If the traps included blasting materials, for example, police might be able 
to trace the buyer of the explosives involved.

Other times, growers are turned in by angry associates, scorned lovers or 
suspicious neighbor s. In fact, community members' increasing willingness 
to inform police of illegal or suspicious activity may be, according to 
Strike Force members, indicative of a growing intolerance for the illicit 

"The attitudes are different from the public now," said state police Sgt. 
Charles Cornett, a Strike Force member.

"I think some people in the Eastern Kentucky counties thought, if we treat 
them bad, they won't come back. Well, here it is the 10th season, and we're 
still coming back. In fact, mos t people say now they wish that we would 
get all of it.

"The violence, the public corruption and all that - people don't want to 
live in that kind of atmosphere."


Pot In The U.S.

About half of the marijuana consumed in the U.S. is grown domestically, 
federal officials estimate, with 90 percent of the U.S. production coming 
from Kentucky, California, Hawaii, Tennessee and New York.

Last year, the government announced that marijuana use was on the rise 
among teen-agers after a steady decline.

The National Household Survey on Drug Abuse estimated that 7.3 percent of 
all teen-agers - 1.3 million between age 12 and 17 - smoked marijuana in 
1997, compared with 4 percent in 1995.
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MAP posted-by: Jo-D