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S. Carolina battles marijuana boom

The state's pine forests and nearby interstate have drawn illegal pot growers, making the plant its No. 1 cash crop.

September 02, 2007|Meg Kinnard | Associated Press

COLUMBIA, S.C. — From the ground, the forests near the North Carolina line appear unremarkable -- rows of pine trees that eventually will be chopped down to make way for a housing development.

But hidden among the trees, easily visible only from the air, is a bumper crop of what some experts say is South Carolina's most lucrative harvest: marijuana.

More than 30,000 marijuana plants were seized in July in two busts just south of Charlotte, N.C., bringing the total amount seized this year to 38,000 plants. That's nearly three times the number confiscated statewide in all of 2005, and nearly as many as were seized last year.

State and federal authorities, and experts in marijuana policies, say that the apparent bumper crop of the illicit marijuana plants this year is due to two factors: bolder and more sophisticated growers producing more, and law enforcement getting better at finding their operations.

"The traffickers are doing just larger amounts of grows, and larger crops, in places where law enforcement is doing a better job in finding them," said John Ozaluk, the federal Drug Enforcement Administration's top agent in South Carolina. "It's a very bold thing to do, to plant that many marijuana plants."

Much of the marijuana that ends up in South Carolina is grown in Mexico, according to federal officials. But transporting drugs across the border is expensive and risky, another factor, said Ozaluk, that has led to more homegrown marijuana.

And growers have plenty of financial incentive to get into the booming marijuana industry. A study by Virginia-based researcher Jon Gettman in 2006 says marijuana is the nation's largest cash crop, valued at $35.8 billion over a three-year period, and is the single largest cash crop in 12 states, including South Carolina. From 2003-2005, marijuana production and sales amounted to a $142 million industry in the state, ahead of tobacco, $97 million, and cotton, $92 million.

The rural counties just south of Charlotte are notorious hotbeds of marijuana production. Interstate 77 cuts through the area, winding its way to Cleveland, making the area an easy starting point for shipping drugs to areas farther north.

Chester County Sheriff Robby Benson said about 40,000 plants had been confiscated in the last two years -- more than half of the total number of plants seized statewide during that time. And, he said, growers are getting smarter, and more elaborate, in their operations.

As is typical for marijuana busts in the area, Benson said, the 19,000 plants discovered in one raid there in early July were nestled among pine trees in an area about as large as a football field. The trees help conceal the plants from detection, but growers will typically prune some of the branches to allow sunlight to filter down to the plants, some of which had grown to 6 feet or more, he said.

"There's no way of seeing it from the road," Benson said. "We have to spot it from the air. It's real thick, most of the time."

Near the field, deputies found an irrigation system consisting of plastic-lined water pits rigged to a generator and pump. And a shelter, complete with tents, makeshift furniture and food, showed that the growers wanted to stay close to their investments, he said.

No arrests have been made in either of the big busts, Benson said.

To assist local authorities who may not have access to helicopters, state police make regular aerial searches over Chester County and other areas, looking for the telltale leafy plants.

"We go out every day to some part of the state, and we fly over," said Maj. Stacey Drakeford, who oversees the State Law Enforcement Division's marijuana eradication programs. "Sometimes you find them as little as one or two plants, or you find a plot."

To access the hard-to-reach, off-road areas, Benson said his deputies had recently acquired additional all-terrain vehicles and on occasion received help from the National Guard. But even with the extra efforts, some analysts wonder whether progress is being made against marijuana, in South Carolina, and nationwide.

"The big picture issue is whether there's any evidence that the raids and seizures accomplish anything," said Bruce Mirken, spokesman for the Washington-based Marijuana Policy Project.

"We've been doing this since Nixon was president . . . and at the end of all that, marijuana is the number one cash crop in this country."

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