Pubdate: Sun, 08 May 2016
Source: Columbus Dispatch (OH)
Copyright: 2016 The Columbus Dispatch
Authors: Jennifer Smola and Holly Zachariah


WAVERLY, Ohio - Sure, some people grow marijuana in Pike County.

And, yes, some people nurture the tender plants near clearings where 
the sunshine will hit them and where a water source - generally the 
Scioto River or one of its feeder creeks - is readily available.

Increasingly often, though, people are moving their operations 
indoors, adding grow lights and irrigation to keep it all under roof, 
hidden from nosy neighbors and men and women with badges.

This is not just a Pike County problem. Growing marijuana as a cash 
crop isn't uncommon in Appalachian communities, where the land is 
fertile and the opportunity to make money doing something else often isn't.

Not all local law enforcement agencies report how much marijuana they 
have seized, but data from the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation 
shows Ohio's Appalachian counties often have the most plants 
confiscated each year.

Of the 10 Ohio counties with the most total marijuana plant seizures 
from 2008 to 2015, Appalachian counties take seven of those slots. 
During those years, Pike County had 27,614 plants seized, second only 
to Muskingum County with 32,021.

Both counties' numbers were elevated because each had abnormally 
large grow sites of more than 20,000 plants uncovered in 2010. Both 
instances involved Mexican nationals living in remote campsites and 
tending to marijuana fields.

The marijuana business is a popular one in rural regions for a 
variety of reasons, experts say. Boom and bust business cycles, high 
poverty rates and a lack of economic opportunity have historically 
led to some less-than-legal methods of increasing income, such as bootlegging.

Marijuana is no different, said Gary Potter, professor and associate 
dean at Eastern Kentucky University's School of Justice Studies.

"There's always been illicit enterprise in these rural areas as a 
supplement to what jobs and what limited economic opportunities are 
available," said Potter, who has researched drug trends for more than 
30 years, including in Appalachia. "It's been that way for centuries."

That context becomes especially important after Pike County found 
itself in the news two weeks ago when eight members of the Rhoden 
family were found shot to death at four homes on the family's properties.

As state and local authorities investigated those killings, they 
uncovered marijuana grow sites on three of the four Rhoden 
properties. They have not said whether they think the killings had 
any connection to the drugs, and they haven't given any details about 
the grow sites' scale, except to say at least one was indoors and 
that it was way too much to be for personal use.

Pike County Prosecutor Rob Junk told The Dispatch last week that he 
knows marijuana grows in his county but, frankly, investigators have 
bigger fish to fry.

"It cannot be a huge focus for us," Junk said. "We are covered up 
with heroin and methamphetamine here."

The county's five drug overdose deaths in 2014 don't sound like a 
startling number, but given that there are fewer than 30,000 
residents in Pike County, its per-capita rate is among the highest in 
the state.

"Nobody can be actively out looking for small amounts of marijuana," 
Junk said, "and when it comes to big operations that are well-hidden 
that we can't see from the air, it takes information or a tip to help us."

Since the Rhoden killings, some have questioned how Pike County 
Sheriff Charles Reader didn't know about the grow sites on the Union 
Hill properties.

He bristled at the question, telling The Dispatch that during his 11 
months in office, he has made drug interdiction a focus and 
established the first narcotics unit the sheriff's office has ever 
had. But he echoed Junk's comment about informants.

"In 11 months I never had one tip, never came across one informant, 
never had one forwarded message from anyone that anything was going 
on up there. Not one call about Union Hill Road," Reader said.

Experts agree that rooting out home growers can be difficult. Law 
enforcement often is spread out, and growing marijuana can become 
both profitable and achievable.

The Appalachian culture is one founded on strong family ties, and 
that allows those who choose to grow marijuana to run their operation 
without involving less-trusted people outside of their own circle.

Growing marijuana discreetly on a hillside for a little extra cash 
may seem harmless enough, but at what point does it turn to a larger, 
more sophisticated commercial operation, and why?

Mike Potter is an assistant professor at Appalachian State 
University's Department of Government and Justice Studies whose 
research addresses the Appalachian region. He said there is some 
speculation that growers have been scaling up their production in 
recent years in anticipation of marijuana legalization.

There also have been some cases in Appalachia in which cooperatives 
form, and larger groups offer to buy a grower's crop in its entirety, 
said Gary Potter, who is not related to Mike Potter. And suddenly, 
rather than selling just to individuals on the side, growers are 
selling to a larger organization, he said.

Those extensive family ties that make it easy to grow marijuana in 
the first place also can play into a grower's ability to ramp up the 
size of the operation.

"If you're in an area that doesn't have a strong family network, when 
you scale up a grow production, you run the risk of having to loop in 
potentially more people," Mike Potter said. "If you have really 
strong family networks, that becomes much less of a concern."

Muskingum County Sheriff Matt Lutz knows all about this. In 2010 his 
county uncovered a huge field of marijuana with more than 32,000 
plants in the northern part of the county. At least 10 undocumented 
immigrants from Mexico had been living in tents and tending the 
fields. All were arrested and charged.

Law enforcement has long known that the drug trade in Ohio is boosted 
and fueled by Mexico, but those camps are uncommon.

" Cartel is a word that's thrown around a lot, and that's not always 
what's happening," Lutz said. "I think the operators find people 
willing to live in camps, and they do that for a while and then move on."

Lutz, whose county is also in Ohio's Appalachian region but is far 
north and east of Pike County, said he thinks more growers are moving 
indoors, which is why law enforcement's marijuana eradication numbers 
have dropped in many places.

Moving a grow site inside isn't necessarily a sign of a more 
sophisticated or well-funded operation, but more that the growers 
decided they wanted less risk.

"People are moving it more into garages," Lutz said. "The criminal 
element evolves. It's always changing."
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