Ice Storm Warning issued for parts of the Miami Valley

Marijuana grow operations harder to find

Seizure of marijuana plants in Ohio declined by 76 percent this year compared to 2010, when authorities confiscated a record 84,660 plants as part of the state’s annual eradication program, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

This year authorities found more than 20,470 pot plants at outside and indoor grow operations around the state during the summer growing season.

Removal of the illegal plants came at the hands of sheriff’s deputies in multiple counties with support from agents from the Ohio Attorney General’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation. BCI uses a federal grant to pay for helicopters, pilots, supplies and administrative costs, while county sheriffs provide support on the ground.

“Once they locate it we move in and retrieve the plants,” said Montgomery County Sheriff’s Capt. Mike Brem, who is commander of the Regional Agencies Narcotics and Gun Enforcement Task Force.

Deputies burn the confiscated pot.

Scott Duff, BCI Special Agent Supervisor, said the annual sweep of corn fields has had an impact on illicit growers.

“Now it is in small patches spread out; that’s because of us,” Duff said.

In the past it wasn’t uncommon to find a plot of 500-700 plants, but now the more typical bust is for 10-30. The biggest this year was 200 plants, he said.

Moving indoors

Duff said outdoor seizures have declined as pot growers are increasingly use sophisticated indoor grow operations, which are less easily detected by helicopters. For indoor operations authorities often rely on tips. Duff said they need warrants to check electric usage or to deploy thermal imagers to determine if there is an unusual amount of heat emanating from a property.

Brem said pot growers innovate, going so far as to put the marijuana in pots in trees in an effort to avoid detection. Another trick is to tie down the plants so they are not sticking up above the crop.

“Those marijuana plants, they’re very bright green, especially if you have a trained eye in a helicopter. Everything from above is fair game,” said Clark County Sheriff Gene Kelly, who has run an eradication program every year for the last 27.

Kelly no longer goes up in the helicopter since the BCI took over the program, but back in the day he relished the job.

“We had the old Hueys. I’d hang out the door,” Kelly said. “You couldn’t sneak up on anybody they were so loud. After a day in that helicopter you’d have a splitting headache.”

Before he had the helicopters, Kelly did a little bit of innovating himself to find the pot plots.

“We’d get firetrucks and I’d go up in a ladder and guide the deputies in,” he said.

Plants stand out

Sheriff’s deputies and BCI agents recently worked their way through a field northwest of Greenville. The corn had turned a dull brown after harvest, leaving the bright green marijuana plants easily detected by air. An agent in a helicopter hovering overhead and directed the ground forces.

“Take a left into the field … ” came crackling over the two-way radio from above. Deputies hit the jackpot with a bundle of 5-foot tall plants that were hidden in rows of corn.

In most cases, BCI believes farmers are not responsible for the pot plants. Instead, authorities said illegal growers plant marijuana seedlings in small groups among the rows of corn to hide them from detection. When the plants become mature, the growers return to harvest their crop.

“They’re working harder and we’re working harder as well,” Duff said.

Arrests are few, though. In all of last year, the DEA reported just 27 people charged in Ohio as a result of marijuana raids funded through a federal program. Authorities say when they find the pot fields the growers typically are not around.

Most of the $500,000 in federal marijuana eradication money spent last year in Ohio went to pay for helicopters and pilots. Funding was down by $50,000 compared to 2011.

At last count, 68 of the state’s 88 counties participated in the program. Regionally, Shelby County had the most pot plants eradicated in 2013 with 493 and Preble was next with 360 plants. Statewide, Meigs County in southeast Ohio led with 1,642.

For other local counties the tally was: 334 in Montgomery County, 97 in Champaign County, 70 in Darke County, 71 in Miami County, 63 in Warren County, 32 in Clark County, 7 in Greene County, and 4 in Butler County.

During the Darke County sweep, neighbor Doug Lipps called the sheriff’s office to ask why a helicopter was flying over his property. When informed by the dispatcher about the eradication effort, Lipps voiced his support. He figured action now would prevent growers from getting out of control.

“Maybe next year it was going to be two or three times bigger,” Lipps speculated.

Waste of time?

Still, the sweeps have their critics, who call the effort a waste of both time and money. Tonya Davis, of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws Women’s Alliance, said the money would be better spent on fighting the drugs that are causing local authorities the most trouble.

Law enforcement authorities in multiple counties identified heroin and prescription drug abuse as their top two concerns. Davis said while several other states have begun to legalize marijuana use, Ohio continues to spend tax money to track down grow operations.

“For someone to make a plant illegal, it’s all about power and greed,” Davis said.

Brem and Duff said marijuana remains illegal in Ohio and illegal drug trafficking brings violent crime with it.

“We’re trying to do everything we can to make this a safe community,” Kelly said.

“They talk about gateway drugs — I think what we’re seeing is they smoke marijuana and now they’re lacing it with cocaine and heroin,” Kelly said. “They’re trying to make other concoctions from marijuana.”

Darke County Sheriff Toby Spencer said his support for the marijuana crackdown remains unchanged. He said with minimal investment of local resources, it puts federal and state money to good use in his county.

“We’re still doing something about the drug traffic here in Darke County and many other counties around the state of Ohio,” Spencer said.

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