Pubdate: Sun, 28 Sep 2003
Source: Post and Courier, The (Charleston, SC)
Copyright: 2003 Evening Post Publishing Co.
Author: Jeffrey Collins


In South Carolina, York County Leads In Number Of Pot Plants Seized

YORK--Every itch of his chigger bites reminds investigator Rayford Ervin 
Jr. why 2003 has been a banner year for the illicit marijuana crop in the 
pastures of rural York County.

What's been good for the pests -- bountiful spring and summer rains after 
years of drought -- has also been good for people who grow pot deep in the 
fields that back up to bustling Charlotte.

"To grow marijuana, you've got to have sunlight, water, fertilizer and what 
we call tender loving care," said Ervin, part of a York County task force 
that has so far this year seized 8,400 pot plants with a street value of 
more than $21 million.

Those numbers shatter previous yearly records, and there's still a few 
months left in the growing season.

 From Maine to West Virginia to South Carolina, police are reporting bumper 
marijuana crops in some areas.

Good growing weather was cited as part of the reason West Virginia 
authorities have already seized double the amount of marijuana found last 
year. Authorities seized about 30,000 marijuana plants just in July, which 
was nearly equal to the amount of marijuana taken from fields in all of 
2002. For the year, about 70,000 plants have been taken from what officials 
call "West Virginia's No. 1 cash crop."

"We've always been notorious for growing a lot of marijuana," said State 
Police spokesman Sgt. Jay Powers. "That's why we try so hard to get rid of it."

But the frequent summer downpours have proved to be too much of a good 
thing for some growers. South Carolina agents haven't seen a dramatic jump 
in seized marijuana plants statewide and some have reported crops stunted 
by too much rain.

So far this year, South Carolina's State Law Enforcement Division has 
seized nearly 13,000 marijuana plants across the state. There is still 
enough time in the growing season to surpass the 2002 peak of about 25,000 
plants, but the numbers likely will not approach the 45,000 plants found in 

SLED Chief Robert Stewart doesn't know why York County has accounted for 
about two-thirds of the marijuana seized in the state so far this year.

Marijuana fields are spread throughout York County, from the rural western 
areas to some small pastures in the far eastern section of the county that 
border suburban sprawl.

"It's a cat-and-mouse game. We find it, they try to hide it better," Ervin 
said. "But in the end, we're just going to keep finding it and keep taking 
it away."

Lt. Kelly Lovelace, who heads York County's drug task force, credits the 
weather with making marijuana easier to grow, but also thinks the 
aggressive work of her 21-agent unit has pushed users into trying to grow 
their own stash. Fourteen of the unit's 23 busts this year have been 10 
plants or less, she said.

"We've had people tell us, 'We have to grow our own. You can't hardly get 
any weed on the streets because you guys have been hitting it so hard,'" 
Ervin said.

John Ozaluk, the federal Drug Enforcement Agency's chief agent in South 
Carolina, said the user who grows for himself or for a few friends is a lot 
more likely to be caught.

Mass growers use concealment methods and aren't as dependent on the whims 
of Mother Nature, said Ozaluk, who remembers a major bust during the 
drought years where the growers had diverted a small stream to irrigate 
their crop.
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