Pubdate: Wed, 28 Feb 2001
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2001 The New York Times Company
Contact:  229 West 43rd Street, New York, NY 10036
Fax: (212) 556-3622
Author: Francis X. Clines


LEXINGTON, Ky. - Winter is easing in the rolling hills and hamlet 
hollows, and all the prespring indications are that marijuana will 
have another bumper year and remain this state's No. 1 cash crop, 
just as it continues prime in West Virginia and Tennessee.

"Bigger than tobacco," noted Roy E. Sturgill, the director of the 
Appalachia High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, the only one of the 
nation's 31 federal antidrug regions focused on marijuana.

The prodigious, high-octane marijuana crop is a startling fact of 
modern life to outsiders passing through the 65 Appalachian counties 
in the target area, a rugged, fruitful swath of some beautiful parts 
of Kentucky, West Virginia and Tennessee. Marijuana is ubiquitous, 
growing well-tended in deep-woods patches and casually disguised, 
too, in the expanse of a farmer's cornfield and a resident's basement.

The annual crop comes in at an estimated $4-billion-plus yield of 
high-grade produce that flows illicitly to markets of the Northeast 
willing to pay some of the nation's highest street prices. (This 
yield is beyond the $1.4 billion worth tracked and eradicated by 
authorities last year, a haul that, even when broken down in the 
three states, still tops any of their legal cash crops.)

"It's kind of like the old moonshine days with neighbors making a 
living at it," said Sgt. Ronnie Ray, a marijuana suppression officer 
with the Kentucky State Police here at Bluegrass Station. "And we're 
kind of like the new revenuers."

Sergeant Ray, his commander, Lt. Donald J. Gill, and Detective Mark 
Moore, their specialist in the increasingly popular art of indoor 
marijuana growing, discussed the agronomics of green lightning with 
gentle drawls and savvy experience.

"I'd say we're more or less holding the line right now," Lieutenant 
Gill warily estimated, pleased that his unit recently succeeded in a 
drug raid of more than 1,000 plants being grown indoors, the toughest 
turf of all to track the growers.

"Still," Sergeant Ray concedes, "we're probably taking very little of 
all that's out there."

Detective Moore, working a beat in which the growers have new 
antidetection wrinkles every season, said of the marijuana, "Pound 
for pound, it's the big one."

With all the rote anticipation of the Farmer's Almanac, the 105 
full-time antimarijuana officers of the Appalachia target area are 
preparing for the spring planting. They will be joined by 595 
seasonal officers from federal, state and local forces charged with 
tracking the "holler dopers." For the most part, these are ordinary 
denizens who often, but not always, are from the more impoverished 
old mining hamlets.

"Everybody seems to know somebody who grows it, sells it, smokes it," 
says Sergeant Ray. "It's the dirty little secret of Kentucky."

Spotters will go out by helicopter in the spring to map hundreds of 
suspected crops in mountain leas. Antimarijuana harvesters will 
descend by rappelling ropes to the most remote farms hidden in wild 
places like the Daniel Boone National Forest. More than 200,000 
marijuana plants, each worth about $1,000 in retail produce, are 
seized each year in the sprawling beauty of the Boone forest.

Detective Moore, meanwhile, finds all too few of the citizen 
complaints he relies upon in tracking the indoor planters year-round. 
They use hydroponics, growing lamps and scientific pruning techniques 
to produce a crop every 89 days in basements, silos, closets and even 
underground bunkers, replete with booby traps and remote video 

Despite police crackdowns, the growers, cyclical as Ecclesiastes, 
will soon be hiking or heading by all-terrain vehicles for the choice 
sun- drenched remote patches of Appalachia, where the rich soil and 
good farming weather grow marijuana plants 18 feet high. Confiscation 
has increased fivefold over the last decade but the region still 
produces an estimated two-fifths of the nation's marijuana crop.

In busier hollows, criminal organizations have formed from loose 
confederations of family units, according to federal trackers. 
Corruption, in turn, has compromised at least a half-dozen county 
sheriff operations since marijuana took root as big business in the 

"There are people afraid to go out in the fall on their own land," 
Sergeant Ray noted, explaining that there are brazen interlopers who 
try to foil property confiscation laws by surreptitiously using 
tracts of other people's land. "There's a lot of good people in this 
state dead set against marijuana," the sergeant emphasized, while 
noting that the old backwoods peer pressure of the moonshining days 
can mitigate against citizen complaints.

"Some counties are pretty close-knit and there seems to be an 
acceptance," Mr. Sturgill agrees. More manpower is needed, he 
emphasized, if the Appalachia problem is to be uprooted. More 
technology, too, like thermal imaging detectors that can help find 
indoor marijuana but are under constitutional challenge as illegal 
search devices.

Detective Moore advises the police to be fearless even in their own 
communities. "I took down a guy where I live who was growing 400 
plants in his garage," he related, still angry at his neighbor's 
cheekiness. "Local pressure got pretty tough, with folks thinking 
like this guy was family."

But the police stress that the problem clearly exists well beyond 
Kentucky in neighboring states and is prompted by prime growing 
conditions and market demand up north more than by the local 

"Heck, I remember being in high school in 1969 and witnessing the 
school's first pot arrest for possession," Sergeant Ray recalls. That 
was before modern highways made distant markets accessible to the 
potent produce of Appalachia. "Back then, we thought that pot arrest 
was the end of the world," he said, smiling as the marijuana 
suppression unit prepares for another spring planting.
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MAP posted-by: Josh Sutcliffe