Pubdate: Sun, 29 Jul 2007
Source: Winston-Salem Journal (NC)
Copyright: 2007 Piedmont Publishing Co. Inc.
Note: The Journal does not publish LTEs from writers outside its 
circulation area
Cited: Marijuana Policy Project
Bookmark: (Cannabis)


Recently, Authorities Have Found Bumper Crop Of Pot Plants

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- From the ground, the pine forests near the North 
Carolina line appear unremarkable -- rows of trees that eventually 
will be chopped down to make way for a housing development.

More than 30,000 marijuana plants have been seized this month in two 
raids just south of Charlotte, N.C., bringing the total number of 
marijuana plants seized this year to 38,000.

That's nearly three times the number confiscated across South 
Carolina in all of 2005, and nearly as many as were seized statewide last year.

State and federal authorities, and experts in marijuana policies, 
said that what appears this year to be a bumper crop of the illegal 
plants is because of two factors: bolder and more sophisticated 
marijuana growers producing more of the crop, and law enforcement's 
getting better at finding growing operations.

"The traffickers are doing just larger amounts of grows, and larger 
crops, in places where law enforcement is doing a better job in 
finding them," said John Ozaluk, the top South Carolina agent for the 
federal Drug Enforcement Agency.

"It's a very bold thing to do, to plant that many marijuana plants," he said.

Much of the marijuana that ends up in South Carolina is grown in 
Mexico, federal officials said. But moving drugs across the 
U.S.-Mexico border means high costs and security risks, something 
that Ozaluk said has led to more homegrown marijuana.

And growers have plenty of financial incentive to get into the 
booming domestic-marijuana industry.

A 2006 study by Virginia-based researcher Jon Gettman said that 
marijuana was the nation's largest cash crop, at $35.8 billion over a 
three-year period, and was the single largest cash crop in 12 states, 
including South Carolina.

 From 2003-2005, marijuana production and sales amounted to a $142 
million industry in the state, ahead of tobacco ($97 million) and 
cotton ($92 million).

The rural South Carolina counties just south of Charlotte are 
notorious hotbeds for marijuana growers.

Interstate 77 cuts through the area, winding its way north to 
Cleveland, Ohio, making the area an easy starting point for moving 
South Carolina drugs to areas farther north.

Sheriff Robby Benson of Chester County said that about 40,000 plants 
have been confiscated in the past two years -- more than half of the 
total number of plants seized statewide during that time.

Benson said that growers are getting smarter -- and more elaborate -- 
in their operations.

As is typical for pot raids in the area, Benson said, the 19,000 
plants discovered in one raid earlier this month were nestled among 
pine trees in an area about as large as a football field.

The tree growth helps conceal the plants from detection by air, but 
growers typically will prune some of the branches to allow sunlight 
to filter down to the plants, some of which had grown to 6 feet or 
more, he said.

"There's no way of seeing it from the road," Benson said. "We have to 
spot it from the air. It's real thick, most of the time."

Near the field, deputies found an irrigation system consisting of 
plastic-lined water pits rigged to a generator and pump.

And a nearby shelter, complete with tents, makeshift furniture and 
food, showed that the growers wanted to stay close to their 
investments, he said. No arrests have been made in either of the big 
raids, Benson said.

To assist local authorities who may not have access to helicopters, 
state police make regular aerial searches over Chester County and 
other areas, looking for the telltale leafy plants.

"We go out everyday to some part of the state, and we fly over," said 
Maj. Stacey Drakeford, who oversees the State Law Enforcement 
Division's marijuana-eradication programs. "Sometimes, you find them 
as little as one or two plants, or you find a plot."

To get access to the hard-to-reach, off-road areas, Benson said, his 
deputies have recently acquired additional all-terrain vehicles and 
get help on occasion from the National Guard.

But even with the extra efforts, some analysts wonder if progress is 
being made fighting marijuana, in South Carolina and nationwide.

"The big-picture issue is whether there's any evidence that the raids 
and seizures accomplish anything," said Bruce Mirken, a spokesman for 
the Marijuana Policy Project, based in Washington.

"We've been doing this since Nixon was president," Mirken said, and 
at the end of all that, marijuana is the No. 1 cash crop in this country."

Regardless, law enforcement will continue its air and ground 
campaigns to stop marijuana production in South Carolina, Drakeford said.
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