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Drought makes marijuana plants easy to spy from air

11:12 AM, Aug 22, 2012   |    comments
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There apparently is one bright spot to the drought plaguing the Midwest - police say it's making marijuana crops a lot easier to spot.

As Indiana State Police got an early start to the annual marijuana eradication season Tuesday morning, Sgt. Jerry Goodin said the browning of drought-stricken corn makes the resilient green pot plants interspersed between them "stick out like a sore thumb."

State police chopped down about 30 newly flowering pot plants - an estimated $30,000 worth if they had been allowed to mature fully - before noon Tuesday.

Equipped with camouflage clothes, machetes, GPS devices and police radios, state troopers marched into a cornfield between Scottsburg and Henryville, guided by a Civil Air Patrol pilot flying overhead who gave them precise directions.

"A lot of people think we use infrared scopes, but we don't. Marijuana has a distinct green color," said Trooper Mike Bennett, coordinator of the state police Marijuana Eradication Team.

State police cut down about 100 plants later Tuesday at rural sites in Harrison and Clark counties. They plan to burn the plants outside the Sellersburg post once Clark County lifts its burn ban.

No arrests were made because police didn't catch anyone cultivating the plants.

"The vast majority of the property owners have no idea that it's growing on their land," Bennett said.

But Goodin, spokesman for the Sellersburg post, said the eradication effort is worthwhile.

"Even though we didn't make an arrest, we ruined someone's day or year," Goodin said, adding he hopes it discourages other growers.
Early eradication

Kentucky State Police Lt. Brent Roper, who commands Gov. Steve Beshear's Marijuana Strike Force and the state police Cannabis Suppression Branch, said his agency started cutting outdoor marijuana plants last month.

Though he said the drought hasn't affected the number of crops they've seized this year, "it does help when the corn starts browning."

Most of the marijuana state police cut is in Eastern Kentucky, which hasn't been as badly affected by the drought. Some growers in the western half of the state who planted pot early had their crops die, but Roper is certain that others waited.

"We're starting to hit the meat of it right now," Roper said. "A lot of professional growers try to wait for us to leave, but we were still cutting them down in late October last year."

Kentucky State Police destroyed more than 120,000 plants through the end of July this year, compared with about 91,000 in the same period last year.
Leaders of the pack

The Hoosier state and Kentucky continue to be among the top states for outdoor pot seizures, according to federal statistics.

That data show Indiana destroyed the third most outdoor marijuana plots of any state last year (989), trailing only California (1,326) and Ohio (1,079).

Kentucky was sixth in the number of plots (711) but third in the number of outdoor plants seized and destroyed (382,701), according to statistics from the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Over the past three years, the number of live marijuana plants eradicated in outdoor and indoor growing operations has dropped in most states, even as the amount of bulk processed marijuana seized has doubled.

"You can't attribute it to one factor," Casey Rettig, a DEA spokeswoman in San Francisco, told The Associated Press.

But DEA and local officials cite shifts in tactics by growers, weather patterns and budget cuts for local and state law enforcement agencies as playing a role.

In 2010, authorities seized 10.3 million marijuana plants from outdoor and indoor operations, according to DEA data. By 2011, that number had dropped to 6.7 million - a 35 percent decrease.

Part of the decrease stems from a large drop in eradication in California.

Rettig said growers in California are switching from large-scale forest farms to smaller, less visible plots where they can grow bigger plants.

Dale Gieringer, of the California chapter of National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML, which advocates for legalization of marijuana, said street prices for marijuana have dipped recently, which suggests that there is plenty of it to go around, despite the DEA's efforts.

"I would argue that, in large part, many of these formerly outdoor grows have moved indoors," said Paul Armentano, deputy director of NORML. That marijuana "commands a higher price in the market. ... It could be simple market forces at work."


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