BARBOURVILLE, Ky. - Deep in the Appalachian woods near the Knox-Bell county line, Kentucky State Police Trooper Dewayne Holden's Humvee belched smoke and roared as it struggled up what once was an old logging trail.
As his three-truck convoy stopped at a clearing atop a 3,000-foot ridge, Holden grabbed a machete and joined eight other armed troopers and National Guardsmen, hiking toward a hill under some power lines.
Keeping an eye out for nail pits, pipe bombs and poison-snake booby traps, they found fresh ATV tracks.
The pot growers had beaten them to the prize: Gone were the 40 to 50 marijuana plants worth as much as $100,000 that Holden spotted from a helicopter more than a week earlier. Only six spindly plants were left.
"Well, that's six they won't get," he said, shrugging and pulling them out of the dirt. "Sometimes they just get here before we do."
Welcome to the battle police and marijuana growers wage each fall in Kentucky's remote Appalachian counties, where 75 percent of the state's top cash crop is grown.
Kentucky produces more marijuana than any other state except California, making it home to one of the nation's more intensive eradication efforts -- a yearly game of harvest-time cat and mouse in national forests, abandoned farms, shady hollows, backyards and mountainsides.
More than 100 state police, guardsmen, DEA agents, U.S. Forest Service spotters and others are part of a strike force based in London that works dawn to dark, sometimes roping into remote patches from Blackhawk helicopters.
With a budget of $1.5 million and help from a $6 million federal anti-drug effort in the region, last year the state seized 557,628 marijuana plants worth an estimated $1.3 billion.
"We're essentially in a race with the grower to get it before he does," said State Police Lt. Ed Shemelya, head of the eradication unit. This time of year, "it's not uncommon for us to be on one side of a hill eradicating, and on the other a grower is harvesting."
Authorities say their efforts keep drugs off the streets and illicit profits out of criminal hands. But critics call it a waste of time and money that has failed to curb availability or demand.
"Trying to eradicate marijuana is like taking a teaspoon and saying you're going to empty the Atlantic Ocean," said Gary Potter, an Eastern Kentucky University professor of criminal justice who has researched the issue for decades.
Traps And Tradition
On a rainy morning at the Civil Air Patrol airfield just outside London, National Guard pilots, DEA agents and state police sip coffee and await their morning briefing.
On the wall hangs a T-shirt reading, "Welcome to the Jungle: Kentucky Eradication 2007," a marker of how big the pot business has become since taking root in the area in the 1970s.
A typical day will involve hitting 15 to 20 marijuana plots -- most spotted by Holden or another pilot in a helicopter.
They have learned to spy the telltale earthen trails and bluish-green of pot patches.
They mark the GPS coordinates, then guide in ground forces to cut and burn the crop.
A display case in the squat concrete building where they've gathered is a reminder of the booby traps they might face: pipe bombs with trip wires, fishing hooks strung face-high across trails, sharpened bamboo sticks, ankle-crushing bear traps; and boards pounded through with three-inch nails that are laid on the ground and covered with leaves.
"Some growers will take a poisonous snake and with monofilament wire, tie it to the plot," Shemelya said, leaving police to find "one pissed-off copperhead."
The traps are meant mainly for thieves. Most growers found on the sites, even armed ones, flee when police arrive. But a few years ago, three growers blew themselves up rigging a pipe bomb.
One of Shemelya's men has had his face sliced with hooks, and another was injured after stepping into a "spike pit," he said.
This morning, rain and a mechanical problem prompt the team to head out without the chopper -- although they know it'll be easy to walk right past a giant pot patch amid the thick curtains of Appalachian forest.
The remote and rugged terrain, including the 700,000 acres of the Daniel Boone National Forest, are a pot-grower's paradise -- its perfect soil and climate give it a key place in America's "Marijuana Belt."
But the reasons go beyond the landscape.
Poverty, Money, Tradition
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.
People can make as much as $2,000 from a single plant, an often irresistible draw when good-paying jobs are scarce. Much of what is harvested is carried in car trunks to such cities as Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Detroit, authorities say.
The estimated worth of seized plants alone far outstrips Kentucky's other crops. Federal statistics for 2005 show state receipts for tobacco were $342 million and corn was $336 million, compared with close to $1 billion of pot eradicated that year.
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.
"In one county, we had 45 minutes of surveillance video of a man cultivating. We couldn't even get beyond a grand jury. What better evidence can you have?" Shemelya said.
Holden said that unless a patch he cuts down is huge or contains traceable evidence, he rarely goes knocking at nearby homes in hopes of ferreting out the grower. Everyone knows who it is, he said, but no one tells.
"It's very ingrained in the culture," he said.
Dispute Over Success
At one edge of London's tiny downtown is a bank building with reflective windows. It's not listed on the directory, but upstairs, behind a security door, is the carpeted office of the Appalachia High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, or HIDTA.
The 68 counties in Eastern Kentucky, eastern Tennessee and western West Virginia that make up the area have less than 1 percent of the country's population, but were home to roughly 10 percent of the marijuana eradicated nationwide in 2006.
Director C. Frank Rapier, speaking in a loping Eastern Kentucky accent, ticks off the success of marijuana eradication -- known as "whack and stack" to the locals.
With the help of HIDTA's annual budget of $6 million, which covers three states, pot eradication in Kentucky alone destroyed more than half a million plants last year and netted 512 arrests. So far this year, it has snagged 365,000 plants from more than 3,000 plots in Kentucky.
Forests Somewhat Safer
Since eradication started in the 1990s, Rapier said, the national forests are a little safer for visitors; there's less marijuana, which he believes is a gateway to harder drugs; and last year an estimated $1 billion worth of profits were kept out of Kentucky.
This year, drought has done some of the strike force's work: The total number of plants destroyed and their street value will be down significantly because dry conditions withered many plants, officials said.
But overall, Rapier said, the team's work has resulted in the average plot size declining from 300-400 plants to less than 80. And he says the Mexican drug gangs that control much of the marijuana growing in California have stayed away.
"It's been very successful," he said.
Potter, who has done field research that has put him in touch with many current and former growers, has a different view.
"Simply cutting down and burning plants does no good at all," he said, adding that growers are just planting more in scattered plots, often under netting or shaded areas.
They also shore up profits by increasing levels of THC, or delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol -- the chemical that causes a high -- from 3 percent in the 1970s to 15 percent today.
Potter also argues that eradication programs often exaggerate the street value of the plants they pull up as a way to justify their existence.
"There's more marijuana, better marijuana, more people smoking and more profits to growers and dealers than ever before," he said. "I don't care what KSP and DEA says, by the mid-1990s the war on drugs was over, and the traffickers won."
Federal surveys show that about 40 percent of Americans aged 12 or older have tried marijuana at least once. Nearly 11 percent said they used it within the past year.
Potter, who lives and teaches in Richmond, also believes that more powerful dope and greater police pressure has raised the stakes, and the danger.
"Last summer, I was out in the rural part of the county bumming around with my Jack Russell," he said. "I ran into three guys who were heavily armed. One said, 'You really don't want to be here.' Twenty years ago, they would've offered you a joint -- now they're chasing you away with rifles."
Allen St. Pierre -- director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) based in Washington, D.C. -- agreed with Potter that eradication efforts aren't as effective as authorities say.
He noted that efforts in all 50 states haven't prevented marijuana production from increasing tenfold in the past 25 years to 22 million pounds in 2006, according to estimates complied by NORML researcher using government statistics and data.
Because production numbers generally are based on eradication figures, it's impossible to know for sure what kind of dent police efforts are making. Shemelya thinks they get close to half of what's grown. Potter said it's probably far less.
"There's an old saying," Trooper Holden said. "You plant a third for the law, a third for the thieves and a third for yourself."
This year, federal prosecutors are jettisoning their usual 100-plant threshold used as a guideline to bring federal cultivation charges and enacting a "zero-tolerance" policy for violations on federal land, Rapier said. The idea is to push more growers onto private land, which can be seized.
Shemelya said he believes that marijuana would be on every hillside in Eastern Kentucky if his unit didn't keep it in check.
"You're never going to stop people from growing marijuana," he said. "But the idea is to make it so dad-gummed hard to grow they go to Tennessee or somewhere else."
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