Pubdate: Tue, 06 Jul 2010
Source: Montgomery Advertiser (AL)
Copyright: 2010 The Advertiser Co.
Note: Letters from the newspaper's circulation area receive publishing priority
Author: Marty Roney


The rotor wash of the gray and blue Bell Jet Ranger whips the treetops
as the helicopter's pilot flies over a recently cut pine plantation
looking for Alabama's top cash crop.

"I'm going to put them just outside your window, but I'm not going to
tell you where they are," Mike Manley, an Alabama Department of Public
Safety pilot, told an observer sitting in the front left hand seat of
the chopper. "Tell me when you think you have them."

The ride-along visitor spots three marijuana plants about 20 feet

"You see that color?" Manley asks over the earphones. "Once you get
used to looking for that color, dope is easy to find."

The Alabama Marijuana Eradication program uses helicopters, both state
and Alabama National Guard aircraft, to find pot plants. Pilots then
call in ground teams of law enforcement officers to seize the illegal
weed. Recently, they were working east-central Alabama with Manley and
a Guard helicopter working Chambers County, which borders Georgia.

It's the height of the marijuana growing season, which means the teams
will be flying hot and heavy now until the first frost in the fall,
Cpl. Robert Saffold of the Alabama Bureau of Investigation said.

"Marijuana is the No. 1 cash crop in the state," he said. "Put cotton,
corn and the other crops together and it won't touch marijuana."

The street value of a single plant at maturity is about $2,000, he

Pilots and spotters key on locations over actual plants, places where
marijuana is likely to be grown. When they find a hotspot, pilots put
the helicopters in a sharp corkscrew turn to lose what little altitude
they have, often going below tree-top level. They crisscross the patch
of ground several times, seemingly looking in every nook and cranny.

It's not uncommon for people to leave their homes to look up with
hand-shielded eyes to try and spot the source of the
whump-whump-whumping of the prowling helicopter.

Marijuana isn't the only thing the pilots find. Often they surprise
nude women sunbathing around rural swimming pools.

"I've found liquor stills, stolen property, you name it," Manley said.
"A few months ago I found several hundred dollars in stolen equipment.
I was flying over some woods and found a bunch of equipment parked
together, some of it on lowboy trailers. It just didn't look right. We
called the local sheriff's office and they went out and confirmed it
was stolen property."

And it's not always the boondocks where they find dope.

"We were chasing a bad guy in downtown Birmingham recently," he said.
"I flew over a couple of vacant lots and right under me I spotted some
plants. We went back and got them after we caught the bad guy."

The whirly birds rarely get above about 300 feet.

"If you see a tower or another aircraft that you think I don't see,
key the mike and let me know," Manley told the observer. "Just say
'Tower at 2 o'clock.' And if you feel like you're getting sick, let me
know and I'll set us down as quick as possible. If you make a mess,
it's your job to clean it up."

There were no emergency landings on this trip.

The helicopters fly over each of the 67 counties in the state during a
season. Some hotspots are searched several times a year, Saffold said.
Northeast Alabama, with its mountainous terrain, is usually the leader
in marijuana production.

"The numbers go up and down, but northeast Alabama is the leader year
in and year out," he said. "It's very difficult to find marijuana in
those valleys, you just about have to fly right over the plants and
look down at the right time to spot it.

"You may have one county get real hot for a year or two. We know we
put the right people in jail when all of a sudden we quit finding
plants in a county that has been productive for a number of years."

Growers spare no effort attending their clandestine crop. Elaborate
irrigation systems are the norm. In 2009, officers started finding
"Mexican dope" and the number of plants seized spiked over the
previous year's takes.

Under the new plan, growers, mostly Hispanics, camp out around the
plots to make sure the plants are taken care of, Saffold said.

"It's the same way they grow big dope in California," he said. "The
growers will dig out holes in banks for a place to sleep. They have
other people drop off food and supplies in a location nearby so they
can stay in the woods with the plants until harvest time.

"We've chased several people on Mexican dope fields, but we haven't
caught that many." Pot numbers slide?

The eradication effort began in 1982 and is funded through Drug
Enforcement Administration grants using money seized in drug
forfeitures. That means taxpayers don't foot the bill. Since the late
1990s, DPS figures show the number of plants found have usually
decreased each year.

Fewer plants found in the woods, called "outside grow" doesn't mean
marijuana isn't being grown here, Autauga County Sheriff Herbie
Johnson said. The success of the eradication program has led to more
"house dope."

"We are finding more and more marijuana being grown inside," he said.
"The days of finding several thousand plants growing in one patch are
pretty much over. Finding those big patches was common before we
started flying.

"Now it's more common that if we find plants outside, there may be six
or seven in that one spot. Finding a dozen or more plants in the same
place is rare now."

Law enforcement recently has been seeing more and more dope coming up
from Mexico, squeezing out the home-grown product, Elmore County
Sheriff Bill Franklin said.

Methamphetamine production also has cut into local pot production, he

"You can put a shake and bake meth lab in a plastic box," he said.
"Plus people get on the Internet and find information on making meth.
They have no idea how dangerous it is mixing volatile components used
in making meth."

Pot is still being used, and authorities still need to try to prevent
as much marijuana as possible from hitting the street, Johnson said.

"For most people, marijuana is the first drug they try," he said.
"Most people who have never used drugs won't wake up tomorrow morning
and say to themselves 'I think I'll try some crystal meth.' You have a
lot of young people, high school aged, and even in junior high, using

"It's what gets them started using drugs. That alone is reason enough
to go after pot."

The aerial program has been successful, and needs to continue,
Montgomery County Sheriff D.T. Marshall said. It's rare to find plants
when the choppers visit Montgomery County, he added.

"We like it that way," he said. "The pilots work hard to find
marijuana when they are here. Just the knowledge that we do fly the
county keeps growers from planting outside on a large scale.

"But if we stopped flying, it wouldn't take a year for our numbers to
get back up to where they were in the early days. Then you would find
plots with thousands of plants again. Using the helicopters is a good

The pilots and officers involved know the score, Saffold

"If the tally shows we found 60,000 plants last year, that means we
didn't find that many or double that amount," he said. "We have to fly
over them to find them. The dope growers are planting in more and more
heavily wooded areas now. The plants may not grow as well, but they
are much harder to find." 
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