Lt. Dennis Kent circles the helicopter in a slow turn about 300 feet over a Cumberland County landfill, a spot where he’s previously found what he’s looking for today.
The front doors are off the helicopter to allow a better shot for a photographer’s lens. A crosswind blows through the cockpit, followed closely by the loud chop of propellers smacking the breeze. Whiffs of rotting trash pass through the cabin.
Below, several shades of green coat the ground, and native plants of various shapes spot a hillside, but there’s no sign of the illicit target of today’s operation. Kent flies on.
Miles away, he slides the Bell Jet Ranger helicopter — painted in Tennessee Highway Patrol black and gold — back into the slow-spotting circle over a different green hillside, this one spotted with a few large, sun-bleached rocks.
“There it is, right next to that big, white rock. You see it?” the pilot asks, as he tilts the copter sideways for a better view.
It takes trained eyes to spot marijuana plants from hundreds of feet above. Some pilots look for a shade of green that stands out from the other plants in an area. That can be tricky and unreliable. Kent is looking at the plant’s shape. That knowledge and ability — the keen eye — comes only from experience. From hundreds of feet up, this veteran pilot of the Governor’s Task Force on Marijuana Eradication spots a white dusting on the plants, the telltale sign of cultivation. Growers use the white powder Sevin Dust to keep bugs off their valuable crops.
With eyes on the prize, Kent notes the coordinates. The next move is the cavalry’s.
The Tennessee Highway Patrol helicopters provide the air support for the task force, which was the result of an executive order signed by Gov. Lamar Alexander in 1983. The task force consists of members from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, the Highway Patrol, the Alcoholic Beverage Commission and the Tennessee National Guard, which also provides air support.
All of the agencies contribute ground resources, including vehicles and manpower, while the TBI (and periodically, the ABC) provides investigative resources. Local law enforcement organizations can also pitch in as needed.
The majority of the task force flights are concentrated during the summer growing months, but the force operates year-round and is constantly investigating grow operations throughout Tennessee, according to TBI’s T.J. Jordan. The group is split up into three teams — one for each division of the state.
The program is almost fully funded annually by $780,000 from the Drug Enforcement Agency’s Domesticated Cannabis Eradication/Suppression Program. That’s enough to cover the travel (including hotels and per diem), equipment and operational expenses for the task force, Jordan said. The only costs not covered are the regular salaries and use of the vehicles, which the state would be underwriting with or without the program, he said.
There’s a good reason the state gets federal cash for such a project. In 2005, the Office of National Drug Control Policy labeled seven states — California, Hawaii, Kentucky, Oregon, Tennessee, Washington and West Virginia — as the primary states for marijuana cultivation. They’re known as the “M7 states.” According to the National Drug Intelligence Center, which uses data from the TBI, Tennessee eradicated more than a half million indoor and outdoor marijuana plants in 2008. More than 350,000 of those came from one piece of terrain in Cocke County.
The intelligence center, citing 2008 data from the DEA, states “eradication of indoor and outdoor plants in Tennessee (539,370 plants) accounted for 7 percent of all plants eradicated in the United States (8,013,308).” That year only California (5,322,053 plants) and Washington (580,415) ranked higher.
In 2008, about 82 percent — or 442,351 plants — of Tennessee’s marijuana found and destroyed outdoors came from Cocke, Cumberland, Wayne, Lawrence and Hickman counties, according to TBI data provided to the federal government.
The same data showed that only about 100 indoor plants were rooted out in 2008.
Indoor eradication efforts come from law enforcement intelligence gathering and are much less frequent.
“The other side of it is that people are moving indoors when they grow pot,” Jordan said. “And when they do go indoors and grow pot, a lot of times they are growing the marijuana for the purpose of being to able to produce a higher THC content” — THC (or tetrahydrocannabinol), of course, is the chemical compound in marijuana that produces the “high.”
Marijuana usually stays at a steady price unless it’s hydroponically grown — using nutrient solutions instead of soil — with higher THC content, which can draw $3,000 to $5,000 per pound, Jordan said.
“Does our program impact the overall pricing of dope in Tennessee?” he asked rhetorically. “Probably not. It may affect the availability.”
So is it necessary to take to air with helicopters and arm teams of men on the ground to fight marijuana growing across the state?
Jordan is confident efforts to grow marijuana in Tennessee would spin out of control without a program such as the one he oversees.
“We’re a successful program,” he said. “We’re limited in resources. We’re not getting all of the dope that’s being grown in Tennessee — that’s a given.”
But then there are those who say the task force’s efforts are a waste of law enforcement resources that ultimately aren’t having the desired effect of curbing drug use and are unfairly criminalizing medical patients, whom they say can benefit from legal, monitored use of marijuana.
Paul Kuhn, who sits on the national board of NORML (the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) and is a member of the organization’s Tennessee chapter, said eradication efforts don’t appear to have an effect on the drug’s overall availability.
“These programs have not been effective in curtailing supply in any state that I’m aware of,” Kuhn said. “It’s affected job creation, and no law enforcement agency is going to turn down federal money, so sure, when the feds from the DEA offer funds, a kind of free money, for eradication you buy your helicopters and send them up in the air. But are you really having a meaningful impact on curbing drug use? No, I don’t think so.”
Bernie Ellis, an epidemiologist with a master’s degree in public health education who now works with states and national organizations to create and promote legal medical marijuana programs, found himself the target of one such task force operation in August 2002.
“I grew and provided cannabis to essentially terminally ill patients for around 17 years,” Ellis said. “I decided that if I was going to grow it to use myself, which I did to help with fibromyalgia and degenerative joint disease in my hips and spine, if I was made aware of anyone else who needed it I would make it available to them free if I had it.”
Three days after Ellis said he refused to sell his marijuana to a local drug dealer (whom Ellis believes tipped off authorities), two of the task force’s helicopters and its men on the ground swooped in to raid his Maury County farm.
They found 7 to 8 pounds of usable marijuana on Ellis’ farm. For that amount, Ellis was sentenced to four years probation and 18 months in a Federal Bureau of Prisons halfway house in Nashville. Just last December, a court ruled he had to turn over to the feds 25 acres of his land worth between $150,000 and $200,000 for the marijuana found on it.
As a public health epidemiologist, “Much of my professional work over the last 20 years has been researching substance abuse as a public health problem, so I really sort of have a foot in both worlds,” Ellis said.
He wrote and, along with Kuhn, spoke on behalf of the Safe Access to Medical Cannabis Act. The bill, which aims to create a tightly controlled yet patient-friendly state medical marijuana program, surprised its supporters with the dialogue it created in Tennessee’s House of Representatives last session. It floundered in the Senate, and its backers decided to pull back and regroup for another session with the understanding that it could take several years to get the bill passed.
According to NORML’s website, 14 states have legalized the use of medical marijuana. Ellis said another 14 states have pending legislation regarding the programs. California voters could take one step further Nov. 2 when they’ll vote on The Regulate, Control & Tax Cannabis Initiative of 2010, which would essentially allow anyone older than 21 to possess up to an ounce of marijuana for personal use and to grow up to 25 square feet of it per residence.
To Ellis, who believes at least the medical use of marijuana should be allowed, eradication programs are an unnecessary overreaction.
“This whole notion of things spinning out of control [without the task force’s efforts] — to me what’s out of control is the disproportionate nature of the relatively benign nature of cannabis versus the pretty Draconian response to cannabis.”
But Ellis doesn’t see the issue as one between law enforcement and pot growers.
“I know they’re doing their job, but I’d certainly rather they’d be spending their time arresting child abusers and drunk drivers than people who are suffering from illegal smiles, which is basically what pot is all about.”
After reassessing and strengthening the Safe Access bill, Ellis, along with Kuhn and other supporters will look to reintroduce the bill next legislative session.
Asked if legalizing marijuana would sweep the legs out from under the illegal drug trade and the money made by it, Jordan pointed to the illegal trade of prescription pills.
“Pills are legal all day long,” he said. “You can find them in your mom and dad’s medicine cabinet, in your medicine cabinet, in your grandma’s medicine cabinet. There’s still an illegal drug trade as it relates to pharmaceutical drugs.”
But as it is, Jordan and the task have a job. Marijuana, whatever it’s used for, is still illegal.
In late June, a small convoy of task force members from the various agencies headed out from a staging area — this time it’s the Crossville Memorial Airport-Whitson Field — to the general location of where the pilots spotted pot plants before.
Four utility-sized pickup trucks play follow the leader, hauling trailers loaded with ATVs and coolers. The coolers are packed with water, tea, bread, turkey, roast beef, cheese, pickles, mustard, cookies, and so forth, because lunchtime could come in the middle of nowhere.
The vehicles are marked with stickers showing a pot leaf circled in red with a red bar crossing through the iconic image. On the back of a trailer, a large white sign reads “Police” in black lettering — just so there’s no confusion.
On this particular operation, Lanny Janeway leads the way, winding the convoy down state highways and back roads, and telling of dangers in the line of duty.
The value of each marijuana plant to its grower, along with the amount of time, money and energy expended, means sometimes growers go to great lengths to discourage or outright prevent the task force — or anyone else — from destroying their crops.
Task force agents face the potential for booby traps. Sometimes it’s a punji pit, a dugout hole filled with sharpened stakes pointed straight up and covered with leaves or brush. Sometimes it’s a tripwire connected to explosives; agents tripped one such device several years back, but brush and limbs smothered
Sometimes it’s a set of fish hooks hung at eye level. Sometimes it’s just a man with a gun.
During an operation in 2005, as Kent circled the Bell Jet Ranger over a crop, the grower decided to pop off some rounds into the side of the chopper. Under the hum of the engine and the whir of the blades, Kent didn’t realize he was a flying target until the ground crew radioed the information. The heat-packing grower apparently neglected to consider a possible nearby cavalry, which promptly moved in for the arrest.
Though the dangers can’t be written off, they’ve become less frequent over the years, as the task force continues to refine its operations.
“Because we’ve had issues with them in the past, we go into every patch like there’s a booby trap,” Jordan said.
As the convoy snakes along the highway nearing the entry point, the chopper hovers overhead.
“There you are,” Janeway calls over the radio. “I’m out your left window.”
The eye in the sky gets a visual on the men on the ground and dictates the last few turn-by-turn directions off the highway, onto a dirt road, around a field and up a hill. Here, it turns out, is the best spot to park the trucks and unload the four-wheelers.
It’s the job of the task force pilots to guide the ground crews in through the path of least resistance, and they know they’ll hear about it afterward if the trek goes otherwise.
From a clearing along the dirt road, the men fire up the four-wheelers and set out for the pot patches with directions still coming from above. The four-wheelers plow over brush as deadfall — fallen tree trunks and limbs — and large, disguised rocks threaten to buck the riders. Soon the thicket is too dense for driving.
A few hundred feet in the air, the blanket of vegetation appeared relatively tame and manageable. It isn’t. From the ground, it becomes apparent the situation is drastically — painfully — different.
ABC Special Agent Cary Webb heads into the thick of the brush, reaching over his shoulder and grabbing the handle of his machete, a 2-foot-long blade of necessity for the trek ahead.
Even on this day, with temperatures in the upper 80s, gloves, long sleeves and long pants tucked into Danner boots with their high, stiff ankle supports and reinforced soles aren’t a bad idea. Copperheads don’t always yield their position to drop-in guests, Webb warns.
As he blazes a trail through the vegetation, it’s a slow, deliberate step-by-step march through blackberry briars and other prickly plants that reach out and latch onto clothing and skin without bias.
After a few pauses to redirect the path based on direction from the circling helicopter overhead, Webb reaches a small opening surrounding the big, white rock, and there it is: a patch of 13 six-foot-tall plants with the infamous leaves.
The marijuana plants are neatly arranged, glazed with Sevin Dust and encircled by chicken wire at their bases. All the hard work, by both the growers and the hunters, culminates unceremoniously with a few tugs and — rip — the plants disconnect from the ground with the roots intact. A few machete chops and the roots are left behind.
Webb lays the plants in a neat bundle and wraps them in twine. After a brief pause for breath, he shoulders the bundle and heads out the way he came, this time with the burden of the plants and a path only slightly visible from the trek in.
After dropping off the haul at the trucks, the task force must make another, steeper pass at a different patch a little further down the hill. That yields another bundle of 15 plants.
Is it worth it?
“What we generally say — and I think this is conservative,” Jordan said, “is that if one plant is eradicated basically that’s equivalent to a pound of pot. Cultivated marijuana like we’re getting generally sells for anywhere from $600 to $800 a pound.”
The numbers are conservative because a plant could yield more than a pound or the quality could dictate a higher value, Jordan said. But by crunching the numbers of an $800 plant multiplied by the 500,000 plants Jordan said the task force destroyed last year, the total hits roughly $400 million of street value.
“That’s the impact we’re having,” he said. “At the end of the day, the amount of money that we spend per pound of pot that we eradicate is about the least amount and best money you can spend for drug enforcement.”
But it’s still worth it for growers, obviously. If one plant can draw anywhere from $600 to maybe $1,000 based on yield and quality, a small crop could provide a nice supplemental income, a down payment or a steady supply for the grow-your-own contingency.
The down side for law enforcement is that prosecuting growers is difficult. It’s even a bit of a reward when a prosecution results from the discovery of an operation, because even finding a patch of marijuana not far from a building doesn’t make it easy to bring charges against someone.
For Jordan and the task force, it usually comes down to not only the location of the operation but also being able to prove a property owner was in on it or even knew about the operation, since growers don’t necessarily ask permission to grow illegal plants on someone else’s property.
One man made it easy a few years back, when agents found a few rows of pot growing alongside cucumber plants. Agents were able to pin down the grower by simply following the garden hose back to the house to which it was connected.
For the task force’s last run of that June day, Kent guided the men on the ground to a spot not far off Interstate 40 and the roadside restaurant where the men had lunched on a previous trip to Cumberland County.
The trucks pull into a driveway and around the back of a house, where a small office and a large garage sit. A company that builds trusses occupies the two buildings, and behind the larger building there’s a hillside with a wide dirt clearing heading down it. On either side of it are tall patches of overgrown plants. At first glance, it’s just a bunch of perfectly legal overgrowth.
“They’re in pots,” says the voice from above.
As the men move in closer, black pots on the ground begin to appear through the overgrowth. The potted marijuana plants are ripped up and their roots are chopped off as the men stop to pop tart blackberries into their mouths, still making their way through the hillside patch.
It’s what the guys on the task force call “walk-up dope” or “drive-by dope,” no four-wheelers necessary. The plants are piled up, concentrating that distinct, pungent smell sometimes described as skunky, like the grass seats at a Lynryd Skynyrd concert.
There are about 30 plants in the pile: perhaps $24,000. As the men haul them back and toss them in the bed of one of the trucks, a large woman in a pink top and khaki shorts listens to Janeway as he explains who they are and why they’re there.
There’s a look of disbelief on her face while she stares into the truck bed full of pot. It’s not hers, she says. “Y’all can drug-test my whole family.”
The guys get back in their trucks and start to drive away. With a glance back at a car parked in front of the truss company, Janeway observes, “I’d say it was going to pay for that orange Challenger back there” — manufacturers’ suggested retail price for a base model 2010 Dodge Challenger: $23,695 — “or make a good down payment on it at least.”
Even still, the task force isn’t about prosecution per se. As the name of the program that funds it — the Domesticated Cannabis Eradication/Suppression Program — suggests, it’s about squashing the grow efforts before the illegal weed hits the market.
“Our effort in Tennessee on a day-to-day basis when we’re out there in the heat faced with the dangers of people getting hurt and possible booby traps,” Jordan said, “it’s our intention to make it a bad day for pot growers when we swipe their efforts before they make it to the streets.”
Landing prosecutions would be nice for the men who regularly put themselves on the line, Jordan said.
“But at least if we’re able to eradicate, or through our efforts cause somebody not to grow it because they don’t know when we might come swooping down on them, then we have suppressed marijuana growing.”