Pubdate: Wed, 06 Apr 2005
Source: Louisville Eccentric Observer (KY)
Copyright: 2005 Louisville Eccentric Observer
Author: Joshua Greene


Paranoid Growers, Outnumbered Cops, Guardsnakes:
Dispatches From The Pot Belt

THE OLD MAN'S STORY begins in a cabin in the deepest hills of Eastern
Kentucky. "The state police," he says, emphasizing the pole, "come up
the road on his four-wheeler. I could hear him coming from a long,
long way. He comes up and I'm sitting on the porch and he says to me,
'Could I buy a glass of water?' He was so thirsty, said he was
'terrified' driving up these hollers, looking for pot."

The storyteller is a Bear Cat of a man, with beady and watchful blue
eyes and clad in denim overalls and a leather biker vest and cap. It's
in the wee hours of the night, and he's drunk and flying on exotic
painkillers. "I said, 'I got water and I got ice cold beer.'"

Because bootlegging is a common crime in Eastern Kentucky, the old man
said he couldn't sell the beer to the man but he'd gladly give him
one. The old criminal and the state trooper spend the next hour
chugging beers and telling tales.

"He drank two beers and asked where he could piss at. I told him
around the back and he went on the other side where I had my pot
plants, four of them, every bit of six feet tall. He went over there
and pissed on my purdiest pot plant, 'n' either he didn't know what he
was looking for, or he was scared."

On another occasion, the Bear Cat was not so lucky.

"The cops got my pot last year," he says, suddenly angry like he's
haunted by an unsettled score. "Fifteen hunnerd plants. Buds a foot
long and this thick," he says, curling his fingers as if he's holding
two-and-a-half-inch pipe. "Long red veins. Already had it sold. Semi
from Detroit was coming down to get it. I didn't even have to sell a
joint. Cops got it."

Just as the cops fly around in helicopters looking for weed, growers
sometimes spot from the air before harvesting. Last year, Bear Cat and
a buddy went up in a crop duster and saw orange tape encircling the
crop. They never returned.

"Anymore, you got to plant three crops -- one for the law, one for the
thieves and one for you," he says. Suddenly he shifts his gaze and
glares at his guest. "Better not go looking either."

"BETTER NOT GO LOOKING" is good advice in Eastern Kentucky, home of
the biggest pot crop in North America. The federal government claims
that nearly 35 percent of all domestic marijuana is grown in a
68-county region that encompasses parts of Kentucky, Tennessee and
West Virginia. The money flooding into this poor region -- to the
growers and to the various law enforcement agencies that chase them --
breeds paranoia. The word "killin'" floats off tongues everywhere,
from gas stations to beer stores to country saloons. This is the
latest incarnation of the Wild West. Or maybe it's the Precambrian
era. One thing's for sure: It's a different world.

In 1998, this 68-county region was deemed a High Intensity Drug
Trafficking Area, or HIDTA. In 2003, the Appalachia HIDTA, as it's
known, produced an estimated $3.4 billion worth of buds -- more than
Kentucky and Ohio derive from tobacco, soybeans and corn combined.
Only Northern California comes close to competing in pot crops, and
nine out of the last 10 years, the Appalachia HIDTA has won.

"It's the ideal growing conditions," says Special Agent Harold
Sizemore, of the U.S. Forest Service (as much as half the region's pot
crop is grown in the dense and sprawling Daniel Boone National
Forest). "The climate, the rainfall, the soil. High unemployment. A
lot of the mining is out. There's a belt right in the center of the
United States, and Kentucky, especially the southeast part, is right
in the center of that. Then add in the remoteness and a lot of
absentee land ownership."

The $3.4 billion figure is an educated guess, based on estimated
yields, resale values and how much the feds confiscate. No one knows
for sure how much pot is grown here, or how much of what's grown makes
it to the northern cities where it's generally shipped.

"I wish I could give you a definitive answer as to what we miss," says
the head of Kentucky State Police's Eradication Unit, Lt. Ed Shmaea.
"HIDTA" refers not just to the growing region, but to the coalition of
local, state and federal agencies who search out crops and pursue
growers and sellers. Along with the National Guard, the HIDTA
coordinates and funds marijuana suppression efforts through 16
multi-jurisdictional task forces. In the summer, Appalachia HIDTA
fields 225 people to search for and cut down marijuana plants.

"Some people say we get 50 to 60 percent of what's out there," Shmaea
says. "The area we cover is so vast, and we only have so many flight
hours. We get all that we see."

And that's the problem. Pot grows freakishly well in this steep
country, green and lush with the dank, rich soil of ancient mountains.
And though plants can reach heights of 20 feet, with bases three to
four inches thick, they're a ball-buster to find in the forest, a
dense and disorienting mix of hemlocks and hardwoods, ridges and
cliffs. The searches are complicated by the various crude but
ingenious methods that growers use to deter casual searchers and to
spook cops. The Bear Cat's favorite is to tether the tail of a
copperhead to a stake in the ground with fishing line.

"Makes 'em mad," the old fella laughs, obviously pleased with

But eradication remains a priority, because Appalachian pot is not
only big, it's potent. Typical American-grown pot, according to a 1999
study by the federal government's Potency Monitoring Project at the
University of Mississippi, is 4.56 percent THC (marijuana's active
ingredient). Samples from the Appalachia HIDTA in 2004 averaged 15.4
percent, says Co-Director Phil Tursic, with a high of 18.5 percent.
That's why it can fetch as much as $700 an ounce -- many times more
than common street weed, also known as Mexican swag or brick weed,
which runs $75 to $150 an ounce.

Growers seem to agree with Shmaea's estimate that only about half the
crop is eradicated in a typical year. And that number may change in
the near future, because the Bush Administration has proposed a
significant cut in HIDTA's budget next year, a fact not sitting well
with the officers on the front lines.

SPECIAL AGENT SIZEMORE spends most of his summers riding shotgun in a
helicopter, spotting for pot. He loves his job, soaring above the
national forest. While he nor none of the agents interviewed would
speak about the technology currently in use, in the age of GPS and
heat-detection, along with reports of $7,300 hidden cameras, it's
clear Sizemore is high-tech.

A good deal of pot in the region is grown in the Daniel Boone National
Forest, partly because federal forfeiture laws allow the government to
seize and auction off the personal assets of marijuana cultivators and
partly because of the perfect growing conditions. Because of the
remoteness of some of the marijuana "patches," including steep cliffs
and impassable underbrush, two full-time rappel teams work all summer,
jumping out of helicopters and cutting down pot.

Eradication is no-nonsense work, Sizemore says.

"It's dangerous. You got the natural elements, heat, insects, snakes,
poison ivy, sprained ankles," he says. Last year a Kentucky state
trooper was bitten by a guardsnake on fishing line. The manmade traps
are even worse.

"The traps are sufficient [to] either kill or harm a person
seriously," he says. "We've seen bear-collar traps where they welded
sharp nails on it, explosive devices with trip wires, shotgun shells
on rat traps with the pin set ready to go."

The shotgun shell trick, as described by Perry County Sheriff's Deputy
Joey Sparkman, starts with a heavy spring rat trap nailed to a tree.

"You drill you a hole in it, put you a shotgun shell on it, run your
trip wire. Bam! the shell goes off and sprays the patch," he says.

"You keep your eyes open and keep 'em open good," he says. "Better
grow 'em in the back of your head and on the side too, 'cause you
never know what to expect."

SERIOUS ERADICATION WORK is often done on the deputies' own time, and
it's no picnic. They must hike into some of the roughest woods and set
up observation posts, which must be higher in altitude than the
patches and also have emergency escape routes. They lie in wait, but
growers don't necessarily have to go back to work on Monday, and they
can usually outlast the deputies.

Sparkman tells of a time when he and a buddy were walking through some
tall "grass" and they heard a sharp click. They froze. "You never want
to run -- don't know if it's going to blow up," he says. They never
discovered what made the sound, but the crop had fishing line with a
bunch of hooks running along the plants.

While marijuana eradication is extremely dangerous, it's par for the
course in Perry County. Deputy Sparkman talks casually about
responding to a call of a domestic dispute and coming under fire.
Out-gunned, they left without making an arrest.

"It was dark, it was foggy, we were getting a game plan together," he
says. "We decided to let it ride."

The Perry County Sheriff's department currently has five full-time
deputies. Some nights Sparkman is the only one on duty. Marijuana
eradication doesn't always rank high on the list of priorities.

A night in early March demonstrates why.

First came the morphine overdose, and then it was the drunk stealing
everyone's drinks at a local pub. Next was the arrest of a guy driving
the car without a VIN number, followed by the woman beating her
husband. None of this would have made for a memorable night but for
the trailer court riot in Hazard.

Long story short, a child taken from her mother because of drug use
has been placed with a foster family in the same trailer court, and
tensions boil over. Accusations are exchanged, relatives and neighbors
take sides, and the foster father gets stabbed. The deputies try to
sort it out and settle everyone down.

"We're gonna have to move," says a relative of the stabbed man as she
climbs into her car to follow the ambulance to the hospital. "I've
lived here 15 years; it's gotten worse and worse. The pills is what it

Deputies are called to the trailer court at least four times a week,
Sparkman says later, speeding along twisting back roads to the next
call. "It's early," he adds. "We'll be back tonight."

Prescription drug abuse, not marijuana, is Perry County's biggest and
fastest-growing law-enforcement problem, says Sheriff Pat Wooton. As
pills like Xanax, OxyContin and Lorcet became more widely available,
they moved quickly through the existing networks that have been
established for the pot trade.

By comparison, "Marijuana is a piece of cake," says Deputy Taylor
Combs. "They ought to just legalize it and be done with it."

So marijuana eradication is way down the list of priorities for local
law enforcement in Kentucky, where state law lists sheriffs' primary
priorities as tax collection and serving the courts and election

"The great part of marijuana eradication, in Perry County, we leave to
the state police and the HIDTA people," explains Wooton, a former
principal. "They got the helicopters and the people to shimmy down the
rope and the overtime to pay them."

Policy wonks in D.C., he adds, overlook rural areas when they decide
where to allocate resources.

"The country is putting a lot of money in Homeland Security kind of
stuff, but they didn't design that to fit very well in little old
Perry County," he says. "There's money for a Winnebago command center,
but that's not what we need."

But there is a form of terrorism that's taken root in this isolated
area. That is to say, it's not with a light heart that a good man runs
for sheriff in the midst of eastern Kentucky's drug battles.

"In the season I was running for sheriff I got a letter from a friend
I'd known from way back," Wooton says. "He said, 'Why are you doing
this? I don't want you killed.'"

That was 2002. In March of that year, former Harlan County sheriff
Paul Browning Jr., attempting a political comeback after having served
some years in prison, was killed. The murder is still unsolved.

The following month, Pulaski County Sheriff Sam Catron was fatally
shot at a fish fry. Kentucky HIDTA Deputy Director Dave Keller says
that incident was drug-related; Catron's opponent was backed by
dealers. "There were three people convicted in that," Keller says.
"One was a candidate for that office and the other two were drug

A month after that, a Clay County van was riddled with 33 bullets.
Clay County Sheriff Edd Jordan has said he was the intended target,
but he wasn't in the van when it was ambushed. The driver, the county
clerk, escaped by jumping out of the van and over a steep embankment.

SPRING HAS SPRUNG in the hills of Eastern Kentucky. The daffodils are
poking through the soil, and leaf buds are appearing on the trees. The
snakes are waking up.

While the Appalachia HIDTA team won't begin flying over the forests
until May, Special Agent Sizemore is certain the planning for the
marijuana season has begun.

Most growers have started their seedlings indoors he says. By early
April they'll begin planting them.

Sheriff Wooton says many aren't that careful, because there's little
need. "Frankly, you just throw the seeds in ground and it grows," he
explains. "I don't understand what keeps (everyone) from growing it.
This is the time of year to get it going. They'll plant the stuff and
the snow will fall on it. Most frosts apparently don't kill it."

Regardless of the weather, some plants really will reach heights of 20
feet, Wooton says. "I didn't believe it neither," he admits, "until
[his deputies] come draggin' 'em in here to show me."

Last year's crop statistics were skewed when law enforcement lost an
entire month of eradication due to a wet summer. But it's hard to say
whether that translates to an actual diminished crop yield. Just
because the feds aren't flying doesn't mean the growers aren't in the

The one thing all sides agree will affect eradication is the Bush
administration's proposed budget cuts.

APPALACHIA HIDTA's command center occupies the top floors of a bank
building in London. It's heavily secured, with doors that require pass
codes and bulletproof windows. On his office wall, Keller, the deputy
director of HIDTA for Kentucky, has a personal letter from Bush
thanking him for his 30 years with the FBI. Also on the wall is a
picture of Keller in the field, wearing a big beard, "deep undercover"
in Eastern Kentucky in an investigation that "brought numerous
indictments against law enforcement officers that were protecting drug

Keller looks across a table in with annoyance and confusion in his
eyes. He's taking it personally, the proposed 55-percent slashing of
the Appalachia HIDTA budget -- from $280 million to $100 million in
2006 -- as well as cuts to a half-dozen other law enforcement grant
programs in 2006.

Keller says he likes Bush, even voted for him. But he can't understand
why a Republican president would propose cutting HIDTA funding.
Currently, the Appalachia HIDTA gets $6 million of the overall figure,
and Keller predicts the cuts that will hit his organization will be
greater than 55 percent. Bush's Office of National Drug Control Policy
has called HIDTAs inefficient, but Keller plainly says that in
Kentucky, eradication efforts will suffer significantly if HIDTA is
cut. This, almost by definition, will have wider implications. "To be
[designated as] a HIDTA, you have to have an impact on the rest of the
country with your drug problem. Everyone has a drug problem --
Cleveland, Youngstown, Louisville."

He takes off his glasses and rubs his forehead.

"George Bush said these cuts will be painful, but this is not painful.
This will destroy HIDTA as we know it. In my estimation, it's a
terrible, terrible thing, as far as the impact this will have on local
communities. When you fight narcotics, you fight trafficking, you
fight money laundering, you fight street gangs.

"Drug dealers are constantly trying to take office, be deputized, run
for sheriff. Or they will back a sheriff or other political office to
facilitate their drug trade. I know from firsthand experience. I
worked undercover and we ended up indicting several public officials
that had a nexus to drug trafficking.

"We have police officers in Eastern Kentucky making less than $20,000
a year. We have police departments that can hardly afford to buy gas,
let alone a cruiser that's not a hand-me-down."

Keller says the HIDTA's coordinating of federal, state and local
efforts is a "truly effective, measurable" counter to drug crime. He
cites a recent study out of the White House's ONDCP that shows drug
use among teenagers down 17 percent.

"We're finally doing things right," he sighs, "and now we're getting
ready to kill the goose that laid the golden egg."

AFTER SUNDAY AFTERNOON "CHURCH" at a bikers' clubhouse on the edge of
the Boone National Forest -- a private gathering that doesn't seem to
involve a preacher -- the doors open and a few women and children and
straggling strangers are welcomed in for fried cornbread, soup beans,
baked beans and ham. An older woman, a relative of one of the bikers,
cooked the Sunday feast. And the old wild man suggests coming back
anytime to go riding.

"Get you another piece of meat," a huge man called Hank says. "If
someone only gave me one piece of meat, I'd get mad."

It's a warm springtime Sunday, several weeks before spring made its
way north. The open door and the good food seem promising of good
things to come. The bikers tell stories mixed with an anarchical blend
of anti-Bush politics.

Standing behind, under an intricate painting of biker bash with guys
and dolls getting it on eight ways from Sunday, the Bear Cat fellow
laughs at a crude joke and confides with a wink, "We were just talking
about running for sheriff. We'll be the corruptest county you ever
seen, but we'll make money."
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