A Fly-Along with the Pot Patrol
SCOTT SIMON, host:
Much of the marijuana - don't pretend you don't know what I'm talking about - much of the marijuana grown in the United States is not planted in people's basements or even remote corners of farmland, but on public land. And in recent years the federal government has targeted those spots for eradication.
Austin Jenkins of the Northwest News Network went out with an eradication team in Chelan County, Washington, and filed this report.
AUSTIN JENKINS: Pangborn Memorial Airport in East Wenatchee, Washington. Helicopters come and go. Police officers dressed in camouflage await orders. This is week three of a month-long blitz to search out and destroy large outdoor marijuana grows in central Washington.
Mike Herum is the sheriff of Chelan County.
Mr. MIKE HERUM (Sheriff, Chelan County): We got a beautiful county here and it's a great place to grow just about anything, you know, apples and pears and cherries and marijuana, which is kind of sad.
JENKINS: Sheriff Herum says it used to be the largest marijuana grows here were just a few hundred plants.
Mr. HERUM: Now we're talking seven, eight, nine thousand plants out there, and they're trying their best to try and hide it from us, 'cause they know we're looking from the air.
Mr. JOHN MONTEMAYOR (Pilot, Washington State Patrol): Seatbelts are on, doors are locked, rock and roll.
JENKINS: Washington State Patrol pilot John Montemayor takes me on an aerial tour of national forestland north of Wenatchee.
Mr. MONTEMAYOR: You can see the helicopter below us.
JENKINS: He points out a drug enforcement agency chopper that's flying low circles over a tree-covered canyon. Pilot Montemayor explains the crew is looking for something that doesn't belong.
Mr. MONTEMAYOR: It's a lighter colored green. It looks like a great big green Q-Tip.
JENKINS: This search for outdoor marijuana gardens is part of a national marijuana eradication program. The feds will spend three and a half million dollars this year to put spotters in the air and crews on the ground in the top marijuana-growing states: West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Washington, Oregon, California and Hawaii.
Mr. TOMMY LANIER (National Marijuana Initiative): All public lands are being inundated with this epidemic.
JENKINS: Tommy Lanier is a former Forest Service special agent who now heads the National Marijuana Initiative. He says in the East, the grows are often the work of individuals. But in the west, it's Mexico-based drug trafficking rings.
Mr. LANIER: Those same organizations are trafficking in cocaine, trafficking in heroin, trafficking in illegal alien smuggling, trafficking in money laundering, trafficking in ID fraud. They're involved in all those things. But they make most of their money off the marijuana trade.
Mr. MONTEMAYOR: Winds are up to 10 miles an hour, same direction out of the southwest.
JENKINS: Now it's day two of the eradication program in Chelan County, Washington. A helicopter ferries bundles of uprooted marijuana plants to a ridge top. Here narcotics officers on the ground load the plants into pickup trucks.
Unidentified Man #1: Smells pretty.
Unidentified Man #2: Oh yeah.
Unidentified Man #3: Man.
JENKINS: These plants come from a remote site on national forestland where a 3,000-plant marijuana grow has been found. Police estimate the marijuana has a street value of nearly $6 million. Lieutenant Rich Wiley(ph), with the Washington State Patrol, says this grow, like most, is highly sophisticated.
Mr. RICH WILEY (Lieutenant, Washington State Patrol): They've got a small creek that they were able to dam up, and they've got PVC pipe running a significant distance, probably a half a mile down the hillside, and then they've got a second holding pond where they kind of store water, a little reservoir. And then they've got lines that come out of that and go on down the hill.
JENKINS: No suspects were found. The helicopter probably chased them off. But police say typically each grow has at least two and sometimes more than a dozen full-time gardeners. They're usually armed, and in California there have even been shootings. Often the gardeners are illegal immigrants paying off their debt for being smuggled into the U.S. Again, Lieutenant Wiley.
Mr. WILEY: Yes, what they're doing is illegal. We don't approve of it. But it's the organizations that are behind them that are forcing them to do this and that are organizing it that we're really after.
JENKINS: Already this year, police have found a record number of marijuana grows on public lands. Besides the public safety concern, police say there's even more at stake: environmental damage. The marijuana gardeners often destroy the native vegetation, contaminate creeks with fertilizer, and leave behind piles of trash.
For NPR News, I'm Austin Jenkins.
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