Pubdate: Sun, 30 Sep 2007
Source: Courier-Journal, The (Louisville, KY)
Copyright: 2007 The Courier-Journal
Note: Only publishes local LTEs
Author: Chris Kenning
Bookmark: (Cannabis)


BARBOURVILLE, Ky. - Deep in the Appalachian woods near  the Knox-Bell
county line, Kentucky State Police  Trooper Dewayne Holden's Humvee
belched smoke and  roared as it struggled up what once was an old
logging  trail.

As his three-truck convoy stopped at a clearing atop a  3,000-foot
ridge, Holden grabbed a machete and joined  eight other armed troopers
and National Guardsmen,  hiking toward a hill under some power lines.

Keeping an eye out for nail pits, pipe bombs and  poison-snake booby
traps, they found fresh ATV tracks.

The pot growers had beaten them to the prize: Gone were  the 40 to 50
marijuana plants worth as much as $100,000  that Holden spotted from a
helicopter more than a week  earlier. Only six spindly plants were

"Well, that's six they won't get," he said, shrugging  and pulling
them out of the dirt. "Sometimes they just  get here before we do."

Welcome to the battle police and marijuana growers wage  each fall in
Kentucky's remote Appalachian counties,  where 75 percent of the
state's top cash crop is grown.

Kentucky produces more marijuana than any other state  except
California, making it home to one of the  nation's more intensive
eradication efforts -- a yearly  game of harvest-time cat and mouse in
national forests,  abandoned farms, shady hollows, backyards and

More than 100 state police, guardsmen, DEA agents, U.S.  Forest
Service spotters and others are part of a strike  force based in
London that works dawn to dark,  sometimes roping into remote patches
from Blackhawk  helicopters.

With a budget of $1.5 million and help from a $6  million federal
anti-drug effort in the region, last  year the state seized 557,628
marijuana plants worth an  estimated $1.3 billion.

"We're essentially in a race with the grower to get it  before he
does," said State Police Lt. Ed Shemelya,  head of the eradication
unit. This time of year, "it's  not uncommon for us to be on one side
of a hill  eradicating, and on the other a grower is

Authorities say their efforts keep drugs off the  streets and illicit
profits out of criminal hands. But  critics call it a waste of time
and money that has  failed to curb availability or demand.

"Trying to eradicate marijuana is like taking a  teaspoon and saying
you're going to empty the Atlantic  Ocean," said Gary Potter, an
Eastern Kentucky  University professor of criminal justice who has
researched the issue for decades.

Traps and tradition

On a rainy morning at the Civil Air Patrol airfield  just outside
London, National Guard pilots, DEA agents  and state police sip coffee
and await their morning  briefing.

On the wall hangs a T-shirt reading, "Welcome to the  Jungle: 
Kentucky Eradication 2007," a marker of how big  the pot business has 
become since taking root in the  area in the 1970s.

A typical day will involve hitting 15 to 20 marijuana  plots -- most
spotted by Holden or another pilot in a  helicopter.

They have learned to spy the telltale earthen trails  and bluish-green
of pot patches.

They mark the GPS coordinates, then guide in ground  forces to cut and
burn the crop.

A display case in the squat concrete building where  they've gathered
is a reminder of the booby traps they  might face: pipe bombs with
trip wires, fishing hooks  strung face-high across trails, sharpened
bamboo  sticks, ankle-crushing bear traps; and boards pounded  through
with three-inch nails that are laid on the  ground and covered with

"Some growers will take a poisonous snake and with  monofilament wire,
tie it to the plot," Shemelya said,  leaving police to find "one
pissed-off copperhead."

The traps are meant mainly for thieves. Most growers  found on the
sites, even armed ones, flee when police  arrive. But a few years ago,
three growers blew  themselves up rigging a pipe bomb.

One of Shemelya's men has had his face sliced with  hooks, and another
was injured after stepping into a  "spike pit," he said.

This morning, rain and a mechanical problem prompt the  team to head
out without the chopper -- although they  know it'll be easy to walk
right past a giant pot patch  amid the thick curtains of Appalachian

The remote and rugged terrain, including the 700,000  acres of the
Daniel Boone National Forest, are a  pot-grower's paradise -- its
perfect soil and climate  give it a key place in America's "Marijuana

But the reasons go beyond the landscape.

Poverty, money, tradition

Many of the small towns of Eastern Kentucky, steeped in  a tradition
of bootlegging moonshine, also have high  rates of unemployment,
poverty and in some cases,  public corruption, according to federal
drug officials.

People can make as much as $2,000 from a single plant,  an often
irresistible draw when good-paying jobs are  scarce. Much of what is
harvested is carried in car  trunks to such cities as Pittsburgh,
Cleveland and  Detroit, authorities say.

The estimated worth of seized plants alone far  outstrips Kentucky's
other crops. Federal statistics  for 2005 show state receipts for
tobacco were $342  million and corn was $336 million, compared with
close  to $1 billion of pot eradicated that year.

Over time, growing pot has become an "accepted and even  encouraged"
part of the culture in Appalachia,  according to a recent federal drug
intelligence  analysis.

Authorities complain that in some counties it is  difficult to get a
jury to indict, much less convict, a  marijuana grower.

"In one county, we had 45 minutes of surveillance video  of a man
cultivating. We couldn't even get beyond a  grand jury. What better
evidence can you have?"  Shemelya said.

Holden said that unless a patch he cuts down is huge or  contains
traceable evidence, he rarely goes knocking at  nearby homes in hopes
of ferreting out the grower.  Everyone knows who it is, he said, but
no one tells.

"It's very ingrained in the culture," he said.

Dispute over success

At one edge of London's tiny downtown is a bank  building with
reflective windows. It's not listed on  the directory, but upstairs,
behind a security door, is  the carpeted office of the Appalachia High
Intensity  Drug Trafficking Area, or HIDTA.

The 68 counties in Eastern Kentucky, eastern Tennessee  and western
West Virginia that make up the area have  less than 1 percent of the
country's population, but  were home to roughly 10 percent of the
marijuana  eradicated nationwide in 2006.

Director C. Frank Rapier, speaking in a loping Eastern  Kentucky
accent, ticks off the success of marijuana  eradication -- known as
"whack and stack" to the  locals.

With the help of HIDTA's annual budget of $6 million,  which covers
three states, pot eradication in Kentucky  alone destroyed more than
half a million plants last  year and netted 512 arrests. So far this
year, it has  snagged 365,000 plants from more than 3,000 plots in

Forests somewhat safer

Since eradication started in the 1990s, Rapier said,  the national
forests are a little safer for visitors;  there's less marijuana,
which he believes is a gateway  to harder drugs; and last year an
estimated $1 billion  worth of profits were kept out of Kentucky.

This year, drought has done some of the strike force's  work: The
total number of plants destroyed and their  street value will be down
significantly because dry  conditions withered many plants, officials

But overall, Rapier said, the team's work has resulted  in the average
plot size declining from 300-400 plants  to less than 80. And he says
the Mexican drug gangs  that control much of the marijuana growing in
California have stayed away.

"It's been very successful," he said.

Potter, who has done field research that has put him in  touch with
many current and former growers, has a  different view.

"Simply cutting down and burning plants does no good at  all," he
said, adding that growers are just planting  more in scattered plots,
often under netting or shaded  areas.

They also shore up profits by increasing levels of THC,  or
delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol -- the chemical that  causes a high --
from 3 percent in the 1970s to 15  percent today.

Potter also argues that eradication programs often  exaggerate the
street value of the plants they pull up  as a way to justify their

"There's more marijuana, better marijuana, more people  smoking and
more profits to growers and dealers than  ever before," he said. "I
don't care what KSP and DEA  says, by the mid-1990s the war on drugs
was over, and  the traffickers won."

Federal surveys show that about 40 percent of Americans  aged 12 or
older have tried marijuana at least once.  Nearly 11 percent said they
used it within the past  year.

Higher stakes

Potter, who lives and teaches in Richmond, also  believes that more
powerful dope and greater police  pressure has raised the stakes, and
the danger.

"Last summer, I was out in the rural part of the county  bumming
around with my Jack Russell," he said. "I ran  into three guys who
were heavily armed. One said, 'You  really don't want to be here.'
Twenty years ago, they  would've offered you a joint -- now they're
chasing you  away with rifles."

Allen St. Pierre -- director of the National  Organization for the
Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML)  based in Washington, D.C. -- agreed
with Potter that  eradication efforts aren't as effective as
authorities  say.

He noted that efforts in all 50 states haven't  prevented marijuana
production from increasing tenfold  in the past 25 years to 22 million
pounds in 2006,  according to estimates complied by NORML researcher
using government statistics and data.

Because production numbers generally are based on  eradication
figures, it's impossible to know for sure  what kind of dent police
efforts are making. Shemelya  thinks they get close to half of what's
grown. Potter  said it's probably far less.

"There's an old saying," Trooper Holden said. "You  plant a third for
the law, a third for the thieves and  a third for yourself."

This year, federal prosecutors are jettisoning their  usual 100-plant
threshold used as a guideline to bring  federal cultivation charges
and enacting a  "zero-tolerance" policy for violations on federal
land,  Rapier said. The idea is to push more growers onto  private
land, which can be seized.

Shemelya said he believes that marijuana would be on  every hillside
in Eastern Kentucky if his unit didn't  keep it in check.

"You're never going to stop people from growing  marijuana," he said.
"But the idea is to make it so  dad-gummed hard to grow they go to
Tennessee or  somewhere else."
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