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US: KY Crop Report Part 2 ( Goldie`s home)

Goldie

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SERIOUS ERADICATION WORK is often done on the deputies' own time, and it's no picnic. They must hike into some of the roughest woods and set up observation posts, which must be higher in altitude than the patches and also have emergency escape routes. They lie in wait, but growers don't necessarily have to go back to work on Monday, and they can usually outlast the deputies.

Sparkman tells of a time when he and a buddy were walking through some tall "grass" and they heard a sharp click. They froze. "You never want to run -- don't know if it's going to blow up," he says. They never discovered what made the sound, but the crop had fishing line with a bunch of hooks running along the plants.

While marijuana eradication is extremely dangerous, it's par for the course in Perry County. Deputy Sparkman talks casually about responding to a call of a domestic dispute and coming under fire. Out-gunned, they left without making an arrest.

"It was dark, it was foggy, we were getting a game plan together," he says. "We decided to let it ride."

The Perry County Sheriff's department currently has five full-time deputies. Some nights Sparkman is the only one on duty. Marijuana eradication doesn't always rank high on the list of priorities.

A night in early March demonstrates why.

First came the morphine overdose, and then it was the drunk stealing everyone's drinks at a local pub. Next was the arrest of a guy driving the car without a VIN number, followed by the woman beating her husband. None of this would have made for a memorable night but for the trailer court riot in Hazard.

Long story short, a child taken from her mother because of drug use has been placed with a foster family in the same trailer court, and tensions boil over. Accusations are exchanged, relatives and neighbors take sides, and the foster father gets stabbed. The deputies try to sort it out and settle everyone down.

"We're gonna have to move," says a relative of the stabbed man as she climbs into her car to follow the ambulance to the hospital. "I've lived here 15 years; it's gotten worse and worse. The pills is what it is."

Deputies are called to the trailer court at least four times a week, Sparkman says later, speeding along twisting back roads to the next call. "It's early," he adds. "We'll be back tonight."

Prescription drug abuse, not marijuana, is Perry County's biggest and fastest-growing law-enforcement problem, says Sheriff Pat Wooton. As pills like Xanax, OxyContin and Lorcet became more widely available, they moved quickly through the existing networks that have been established for the pot trade.

By comparison, "Marijuana is a piece of cake," says Deputy Taylor Combs. "They ought to just legalize it and be done with it."

So marijuana eradication is way down the list of priorities for local law enforcement in Kentucky, where state law lists sheriffs' primary priorities as tax collection and serving the courts and election commissions.

"The great part of marijuana eradication, in Perry County, we leave to the state police and the HIDTA people," explains Wooton, a former principal. "They got the helicopters and the people to shimmy down the rope and the overtime to pay them."

Policy wonks in D.C., he adds, overlook rural areas when they decide where to allocate resources.

"The country is putting a lot of money in Homeland Security kind of stuff, but they didn't design that to fit very well in little old Perry County," he says. "There's money for a Winnebago command center, but that's not what we need."

But there is a form of terrorism that's taken root in this isolated area. That is to say, it's not with a light heart that a good man runs for sheriff in the midst of eastern Kentucky's drug battles.

"In the season I was running for sheriff I got a letter from a friend I'd known from way back," Wooton says. "He said, 'Why are you doing this? I don't want you killed.'"

That was 2002. In March of that year, former Harlan County sheriff Paul Browning Jr., attempting a political comeback after having served some years in prison, was killed. The murder is still unsolved.

The following month, Pulaski County Sheriff Sam Catron was fatally shot at a fish fry. Kentucky HIDTA Deputy Director Dave Keller says that incident was drug-related; Catron's opponent was backed by dealers. "There were three people convicted in that," Keller says. "One was a candidate for that office and the other two were drug conspirators."

A month after that, a Clay County van was riddled with 33 bullets. Clay County Sheriff Edd Jordan has said he was the intended target, but he wasn't in the van when it was ambushed. The driver, the county clerk, escaped by jumping out of the van and over a steep embankment.

SPRING HAS SPRUNG in the hills of Eastern Kentucky. The daffodils are poking through the soil, and leaf buds are appearing on the trees. The snakes are waking up.

While the Appalachia HIDTA team won't begin flying over the forests until May, Special Agent Sizemore is certain the planning for the marijuana season has begun.

Most growers have started their seedlings indoors he says. By early April they'll begin planting them.

Sheriff Wooton says many aren't that careful, because there's little need. "Frankly, you just throw the seeds in ground and it grows," he explains. "I don't understand what keeps ( everyone ) from growing it. This is the time of year to get it going. They'll plant the stuff and the snow will fall on it. Most frosts apparently don't kill it."

Regardless of the weather, some plants really will reach heights of 20 feet, Wooton says. "I didn't believe it neither," he admits, "until [his deputies] come draggin' 'em in here to show me."

Last year's crop statistics were skewed when law enforcement lost an entire month of eradication due to a wet summer. But it's hard to say whether that translates to an actual diminished crop yield. Just because the feds aren't flying doesn't mean the growers aren't in the patch.

The one thing all sides agree will affect eradication is the Bush administration's proposed budget cuts.
 

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