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Up In Smoke

Marijuana is still big business, and Tennessee burns millions of dollars' worth every year.



On a warm spring day in May 1989, Dave Adams* had just returned home from his job as a sexton at a local Memphis cemetery. His wife Cheryl* was preparing dinner when they heard a knock on the door. Dave looked out the window and found himself staring into the eyes of a man in uniform. He cautiously opened the door to greet a policeman with a search warrant, accompanied by seven other officers and a dog.

Dave and Cheryl were handcuffed and forced to sit in their living room while the police searched the house. After rummaging through everything, they found 21 marijuana plants, a quarter-pound of processed marijuana, growing equipment, a package of rolling papers, a bong, and six-tenths of a gram of hashish.

Police did not find scales or plastic baggies, a fact that Dave contended meant that he and Cheryl didn't sell pot, that all the plants were strictly for personal use. The couple was told to tell it to the judge. They were arrested and taken to jail, where they spent the night.

The police may have had a hard time believing that Dave's plants were not being grown for profit because marijuana has been Tennessee's number-one cash crop for the past 10 years, surpassing even tobacco.

According to statistics from the Governor's Task Force on Marijuana Eradication (GTFME), which only deals with outdoor plants, 478,000 plants were eradicated statewide last year. Using the DEA's valuation of $1,600 a plant, that comes to $764,800,000 worth of eradicated marijuana, which ranks Tennessee fifth nationwide. And that doesn't include the number of indoor plants eradicated, for which statistics are not available. Pot-legalization advocates note that it's a large chunk of cash that could yield significant tax revenues for the state if marijuana were legal, especially in the face of Tennessee's recent budget crisis. But marijuana is illegal, and those in the eradication business are just doing their job.

Indoors Vs. Outdoors

When Dave invited Jack*, a co-worker, to Thanksgiving dinner in 1988, he didn't have any clue that the encounter would lead to his arrest the following year. Jack was a recovering alcoholic, a Dilaudid (a synthetic form of heroin) addict, and didn't have much going for him. He and his wife had nowhere to go for the holidays, so Dave and Cheryl came to the rescue with an invite to a traditional turkey dinner.

Dave and Jack had talked at work about growing pot, and Jack had expressed curiosity about Dave's crop. So Dave proudly showed him his prized "lawyer bud," a label his friends had come up with for a strain so good that, if he sold it, only lawyers would be able to afford it.

The following May, Jack, who hadn't been back to the house since Thanksgiving, showed up at Dave's door and asked if he could buy a bag. Dave and Cheryl had long ago made a decision that they would never become dealers, for fear of stiffer penalties if they were caught. Dave told Jack no, but Jack was drunk and became irate.

To prevent a scene, Dave asked Jack to go back to his truck, and he'd roll up a joint and give it to him, no charge. Jack seemed pleased enough, took his free joint, and disappeared into the night. The police showed up at Dave and Cheryl's door the following Monday.

"I think that [Jack and his wife] might have gotten in trouble, or they didn't have enough money to get the fix they needed, so they sold us to the police," says Dave, now 42. He still isn't clear on why he was snitched on,

* Names have been changed to protect identities.

and he hasn't talked to Jack since. All he knows is that the search warrant stated that someone had been inside the house and had seen the plants within five days prior to the arrest.

People such as Dave, who grow pot indoors for personal use, are typically less likely to get caught unless police receive a tip or come into the house for other reasons. But it does happen.

"Through the years, we've had substantial grows, mostly indoors, especially as hot as it's been," says Dirk Beasley, a detective with the Shelby County Sheriff's Department. "People growing outdoors have to haul a lot of water to their plants and risk being seen."

In fact, most marijuana around the Memphis area is grown indoors, while the large outdoor crops tend to be more prevalent in East and Middle Tennessee, where the soil and climate are more suitable. It's also easier to hide crops in hilly terrain.

"I've never grown outdoors because one of three things is going to happen: Insects and animals are going to eat it up; somebody's going to come in and rip it off; or the eye in the sky's going to spot you and come in and arrest you," explains Dave.

Police forces across the state have been doing "eye in the sky" surveillance via helicopter for several years now. Shelby County's aviation unit hovers over suspicious areas, analyzing the shape, texture, and color of plants to discover whether or not marijuana is being grown.

They generally look in areas facing south or southeast (because those areas get more sunlight) and around power lines, where the vegetation is cut down, making it easier to spot plants. Certain geometric patterns that deviate from surrounding vegetation can also be a give-away. Smart growers practice "guerrilla" farming, in which marijuana plants are grown with other native crops. But police have ways of spotting this technique due to marijuana's distinct green color.

Once crops are spotted, police set up groundhogs -- 24-hour surveillance cameras -- to record growers as they water the crop. Once the suspect has been caught on tape, an eradication team is sent in to pull up and destroy the plants while others make the arrest.

Eradication teams are made up of members of various police forces and government agencies, depending on the area of the state. Shelby County generally handles its own eradication efforts because the county is large enough to support its own team. Members of city and county police forces destroy crops, and local DEA agents may join in if over 300 pounds are involved.

The local eradication team has diminished in size in recent years, however. "The department has been cut down so much that we haven't had much eradication lately," says Beasley. "Right now, we only have five detectives on the force because of jail lawsuits that took our deputies and placed them in other divisions. We were 20-strong at one time."

Twenty-eight counties in East and Middle Tennessee have been designated High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas (HIDTA) by the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy.

The GTFME, which brings together agents from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI), the Tennessee Alcoholic Beverage Commission, the Tennessee Highway Patrol, and the state's National Guard to work together on eradication efforts, destroys about 75 percent of the state's crop in the HIDTA counties. The task force was created by then-Governor Lamar Alexander in 1983.

Tim Wilson, DEA agent with the Domestic Cannabis Eradication/Suppression Program (DCE/SP), which provides federal funding for the GTFME, points out that DCE/SP will fund all counties in the state, regardless of HIDTA status, unless county governments say they do not want assistance. Currently, Shelby and Knox counties are the only ones in the state that do not receive federal funding.

Spotted By the Eye In the Sky

Agencies that operate under the GTFME come together to search out, confiscate, and destroy plants they spot from the air, using equipment donated by the various branches of law enforcement involved. They investigate year-round, but more emphasis is placed on June through October, when marijuana is more typically grown and harvested.

Army UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters are used to spot the plants and lower agents into areas that are especially hard to get to. A ground team equipped with four-wheelers is also used when the areas are especially remote and mountainous.

"We try to make the job as easy as we can. Once the marijuana is spotted, you've got to get a team to that location one way or another," explains Wilson. "We rappel out of the Black Hawk and they pull us back out with special ropes, or we send a ground team in. The ground team may not be able to get to the area in their trucks, so they'll stop at a certain point and unload four-wheelers. They may even have to walk in, so it's a very demanding and difficult job."

Once the team is in an area where plants are located, the marijuana is pulled up by the roots, put in a net, and transported by helicopter to a dump site where it is incinerated. There is some debate over whether seeds in the plants could fall and cause regrowth as they're being transported.

"One of the great ironies is that they spread seeds as they hack down the plants," says Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). "Once the plants are in the netting, they fly them five to 20 miles to the dump site. As they fly, thousands of seeds are beaten out of the plants. So, every year, the police positively ensure the next year's crop."

But Wilson says, though it's possible that some of the seeds may drop, it's highly unlikely that they will germinate the following year. And Dave, who has 12 years of growing experience, agrees.

"With green marijuana, the seeds don't readily fall out," he says. "It's mainly after the plants have dried that the seeds fall out."

Burning Money

Dave Adams is not sure what happened to his crop after his arrest. He assumes it was destroyed.

It's most likely that the crop was taken to a designated dump site where it was later burned, the fate of most marijuana plants confiscated by the police. But even local cops sometimes don't know exactly what happens between confiscation and incineration.

"They are eventually burned, but first, they're put in the evidence room," says Beasley. "They keep them until they have to go to trial with the evidence and the case is cleared. After that, most officers don't really see what happens to them."

Dave Liddell of the Memphis DEA office says that small samples are sent to a lab for testing and the rest is photographed and destroyed immediately. But regardless of how much time the plants spend in the evidence room, the state is burning up millions in potential revenue when it eradicates these crops, says St. Pierre. He contends that legalization could bring in 20 billion to 30 billion tax dollars a year nationwide, assuming that legal marijuana would be heavily taxed like cigarettes and alcohol.

"Right now, the federal government spends $10 billion to $12 billion a year to eradicate and interdict, as well as on education and propaganda against marijuana use," says St. Pierre.

The DCE/SP program, which is solely responsible for funding marijuana eradication, spends approximately $13.5 million a year nationwide.

Tobacco and cotton are the state's largest legal cash crops, but according to statistics from the University of Tennessee, each grossed less than $200 million in 2000. The estimated 380,000 marijuana plants confiscated that year would have grossed a little over $680 million, based on statistics from the TBI.

Granted, these figures are only estimates based on the DEA's rather high figure of $1,600 a plant, assuming one plant equals one pound of processed marijuana. One plant could actually yield a little more or quite a bit less, depending on its size.

Dave's indoor plants were only three inches tall at the time of confiscation, so they wouldn't have yielded anywhere near a pound apiece. He estimates he would have had only about a quarter-pound of marijuana from the 21 plants, after discarding the males. (Male plants contain very little THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, and are generally considered useless.)

The street value of a pound of marijuana depends on the quality of the drug and can range from $700 to almost $7,000. Legalization advocates contend that if pot were legalized, the government would spend a lot less on the war on drugs and would probably make a profit.

A History Of Prohibition

Marijuana, classified as a Schedule I narcotic today, was legal until the passage of the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, which created a tax structure around cultivation, distribution, sale, and purchase of cannabis products. The act made it almost impossible to have anything to do with the plant without breaking the law.

The act resulted from a media craze in the mid-1920s that portrayed marijuana as a menace to society and purported that it was the cause of most violent crime, despite a lack of any scientific evidence. Government propaganda, such as the 1938 film Reefer Madness, which depicted teenagers committing violent acts after smoking marijuana, helped to spread the stereotype.

By the mid-1940s, several studies had been published countering ill-founded notions of marijuana's violent side effects. They showed that although the drug did impair cognitive function to some degree, it did not change the user's personality. By the 1960s, the Marijuana Tax Act was ruled unconstitutional, but the drug remained illegal, and stereotypes of its dangers still linger.

"The courts are prosecuting a lot of people for marijuana, and they actually don't know anything about it," says Adams. "I ran into that with the judge in my case. All he could think about was the fact that I was busted with 21 plants. It didn't matter that they were three inches tall and half of them weren't going to be smoked."

Adams actually got off pretty lucky. The fact that he had no scales or baggies helped to convince the judge that he was growing for personal use, but he wasn't about to let Adams off without a scare.

"He looked down at me and said, 'You ain't gettin' out with no jail time!'" says Adams. "My heart just fell in my ass. I didn't know what I was going to do."

He was allowed to plea-bargain his charge down to simple possession and was sentenced to six months. The judge suspended all but 45 days of the sentence, since Adams had no criminal record. He was put on diversion probation, which meant if he stayed out of trouble, his record would be expunged in a year. He was allowed to do his jail time on weekends, so he could continue to work during the week.

Not everyone gets off so easy. In Tennessee, possession of 10 to 19 plants can land a grower behind bars for two to 12 years. Five hundred or more plants can result in a 15- to 60-year sentence.

There are myriad national and local organizations that support ending marijuana's 65-year prohibition. Organizations such as NORML and the Marijuana Policy Project actively lobby for the drug's legalization, and in March of this year, a new antiprohibition group was formed. It's made up solely of current and former members of law enforcement: Law Enforcement Against Prohibition believes the war on drugs is failing and promotes legalization.

With Canada considering decriminalization and the recent loosening of drug laws in England, these organizations hope the U.S. will follow suit. But until then, eradication forces in Tennessee and all over the country will continue to send billions of dollars up in smoke.

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