By Samantha Swindler / Managing Editor
Officers with the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Task Force are arresting people on a near daily basis across Appalachia — but for the first time, they’re finding evidence that Mexican drug organizations are growing marijuana in the area.
HIDTA officers were flying over Whitley County Monday, searching for marijuana plants across fields in secluded areas. Helicopter HIDTA searches over Appalachia began June 25 and will continue into October.
“We’re actually flying and searching for it (marijuana) every single day throughout the state of Kentucky,” said David Keller, deputy director at the Appalachian HIDA office.
One particular focus for HIDTA and the U.S. Attorney’s Office has been a “zero tolerance” policy for growing marijuana on federal lands. Keller said growing a single plant on federal property — usually national forests — becomes a federal offense.
“As of mid-August this year, there were 64 defendants that had gone through federal court in regards to this initiative by the US Attorney’s Office. Many of these growers have prior convictions; for many of them, additional charges have been added for federal firearm charges,” he said.
Kellers remembers a time, as recent as the late 1990s, when it wasn’t safe to go into the Daniel Boone National Forest because growers placed traps or had armed workers watching their illegal crops.
“We are basically taking our forests back from the cultivators,” Keller said. “...We’re seeing less on public land — with the exception of these Mexican trafficking organizations that have recently appeared, like in Knox County this year.”
Drug cartel-run grows started moving into California four or five years ago, he said, and they are now starting to crop up in Eastern Kentucky. Part of that has to do with increased U.S. border security and the difficulty in moving drugs. Part of it is the Appalachian climate, perfect for growing in what has been dubbed “The Marijuana Belt.”
Mexican-grown marijuana brings in from $700-$1,200 a pound, Keller said. That’s compared to $2,000-3,000 a pound for Appalachian grown plants.
“We saw one in Knox County that we believe was grown by a Mexican drug trafficking organization, and one in Campbell County,” Keller said. HIDTA officials are basing that belief on “the characteristics of the grows and cultivation sites. There are a large number of plants, they stay on the site, camp out and watch the site daily, and you determine it by the debris they leave behind, by what they eat.”
No arrests were made at the Knox County site, but the plants were destroyed.
Marijuana is the “cash cow” of Mexican drug organizations, Keller said, bringing in more money than heroin or cocaine.
“That’s the cartels’ biggest money maker, and that’s why they are fighting (in Mexico), they are fighting over the territory, they are competing with one another,” he said.
HIDTA works in conjunction with the National Guard, Kentucky State Police, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Marshalls Service and the Civil Air Patrol, with members representing federal, state and local enforcement agencies. In 2008, HIDTA officers made 154 marijuana arrests in their Kentucky territory, which includes the Tri-County, 25 other Kentucky counties, and parts of West Virginia and Tennessee.
Kentucky is the country’s third-largest marijuana producing state, behind California and just behind Tennessee.
Keller said fighting marijuana is “almost like cutting your grass” in that if one neighbor gets away without cutting it, a domino effect occurs and the entire neighborhood generally declines. But the analogy also works along other lines — the fight against marijuana is a never-ending battle.
Keller says it’s still a battle worth fighting.
“We’ve never seen an end to prostitution and bank robberies either, but we can see the teenage use of drugs is down more than it ever has been ... so we’re making some inroads,” he said. “... The only (drug) that has gone up is prescription drug use among teenagers. Everything is down and that’s really encouraging news.”
Organizations could be growing marijuana locally
By Samantha Swindler / Managing Editor
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