Pubdate: Tue, 06 Jul 2004
Source: Montgomery Advertiser (AL)
Copyright: 2004 The Advertiser Co.
Author: Crystal Bonvillian
Bookmark: (Cannabis)


Sometimes fighting the war on drugs can be like finding a needle in a
haystack -- or a marijuana leaf in a forest.

Pilots and spotters working with the Alabama Marijuana Eradication Program
make that task a little easier, said Lt. Keith Kelly, state coordinator for
the program.

"They don't use any high-powered gadgets," Kelly said. "Spotting a
marijuana plant is done simply with the eyes, like my sitting here and
looking at you."

Those eagle eyes came in handy in the skies above Autaugaville Friday,
where Department of Public Safety agents and Alabama National Guardsmen
found 60 marijuana plants with a street value of about $120,000. Autauga
County Sheriff Herbie Johnson said the effort, which netted no arrests, was
a "good haul" for his office.

In May and June, Kelly said, more than 17,700 plants were cut down and
burned in rural areas across the state. While the state's pilots fly all
year on various missions, Kelly explained that the marijuana growing season
in Alabama begins in spring and lasts until the first frost. Because of
that time frame, agents start planning their enforcement in early May.

The warm climate in Alabama is conducive to marijuana's growth, Kelly said.
Statistics show that when the state's marijuana cultivation is compared to
that of other states, it ranks consistently in the top 10.

"The terrain is also good and there are a lot of rural areas," Kelly said.
"There is an abundance of large tracts of land where there are not a lot of
eyes watching, and a lot of hunting property."

This plant was among those found Friday in Autauga County.

Because deer hunting is done in winter and marijuana grows in summer,
growers tend to count on the land being unoccupied, Kelly said. That is
where the eradication program comes in.

Kelly explained that eradication team leaders go to counties throughout the
state and meet with law enforcement personnel. They map out areas to search
and use the history of drug seizures and information from sources to
pinpoint the best places to fly.

As shown Friday in Autaugaville, not all plant seizures end in arrest.
Kelly said the ability to find the grower of a marijuana crop depends on
the elements of the case.

"If it's found on your back porch, an arrest is a lot easier," Kelly said.
"You obviously knew it was there."

When the plants are found in a remote corner of a large tract of land,
though, the owner can be harder to find, he said. So far this season, 29
arrests have been made across the state.

Another issue always on agents' minds is the danger posed by going into
heavily wooded areas, such as intense summer heat, thunderstorms and
snakes. There are also man-made dangers that loom.

"Our helicopter has been shot at, at least twice," Kelly said. "The ground
crews haven't been shot at, but they've found booby traps."

Kelly said marijuana is found more often in Alabama's mountainous counties,
like Cherokee, DeKalb and Jackson counties, but the tri-county area sees
its share.

"We've found marijuana growing in every county in the state," he said.
"Nowhere is immune."
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