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US KY: Crop Report

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CROP REPORT

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 himself.

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."
 

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