Sunday, September 30, 2007

Growers, law-enforcement officers fight out another marijuana-harvest season in Appalachia

It's harvest time for most crops, including marijuana, and that means big money for some rural people and danger for the law-enforcement officers who risk boobytraps to catch them. The Courier-Journal's Chris Kenning of takes a look at the industry in Kentucky, where more pot is confiscated than in any state but California -- mainly in the state's Appalachian counties and particularly on public land in the Daniel Boone National Forest. (Photo of state police by Matt Stone, The C-J)

"Authorities say their efforts keep drugs off the streets and illicit profits out of criminal hands," Kenning writes for the Louisville newspaper. "But critics call it a waste of time and money that has failed to curb availability or demand." Eastern Kentucky University criminal justice professor Gary Potter, a longtime student of the phenomenon, told The C-J, "Trying to eradicate marijuana is like taking a teaspoon and saying you're going to empty the Atlantic Ocean."

Kenning writes, "Many of the small towns of Eastern Kentucky, steeped in a tradition of bootlegging moonshine, also have high rates of unemployment, poverty and in some cases, public corruption, according to federal drug officials. . . . Over time, growing pot has become an 'accepted and even encouraged' part of the culture in Appalachia, according to a recent federal drug intelligence analysis. Authorities complain that in some counties it is difficult to get a jury to indict, much less convict, a marijuana grower."

"I think it's the lack of economic opportunities that's really driven this beast," Lt. Ed Shemelya, head of the Kentucky State Police marijuana unit, told Kenning in a four-minute video that accompanies the story. The new enforcement wrinkle this year is that the Department of Justice has dropped its "usual 100-plant threshold used as a guideline to bring federal cultivation charges. . . . The idea is to push more growers onto private land, which can be seized."

Most of the region is part of the Appalachia High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (map below), 68 counties in Eastern Kentucky, East Tennessee and West Virginia that "have less than 1 percent of the country's population, but were home to roughly 10 percent of the marijuana eradicated nationwide in 2006," Kenning writes. (Read more) For a map of other HIDTAs around the country, click here.

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