By Chris Harris, Commonwealth Journal, Somerset, Ky.
Aug. 4–For many individuals in the Bluegrass, marijuana isn’t just one illegal drug among many; rather, cultivating the crop of controversy is a way of life.
A statewide initiative called “Up in Smoke” is hoping to put an end to that.
In existence for a year now, “Up in Smoke” combines the powers of one of the nation’s top-shelf marijuana eradication task forces here in eastern Kentucky and U.S. Attorney’s office prosecutors. With over a million dollars annually in funding, the program is celebrating its one-year mark, and those behind it are hoping to increase awareness — and let marijuana growers know they aren’t safe anymore.
“The bottom line is, Kentucky has for a long time been first or second in the nation marijuana eradication,” said Kyle Edelen, public affairs officer for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Kentucky. “We’ve always been eradicating a high volume of marijuana, but for first time in this state, we have the ability to identify growers.”
For decades, Kentucky has pumped plenty of money and resources into stomping out one of the state’s most prevalent — if illegal — cash crops. Kentucky remains of the nation’s top three marijuana-producing states; activists have long championed the state’s potential status as a prime source of industrial hemp.
“In some counties, it’s a generational thing,” said Edelen. “The dad grows marijuana to supplement income, and then the son does same thing. You help put your kid through college (by growing marijuana).”
Pulaski County is no different. Edelen said that eastern Kentucky is considered a key area for marijuana growth in the Commonwealth, and that includes this county. Out of 49 defendants brought into federal court last year due to the “Up in Smoke” initiative’s efforts, a handful of them were from Pulaski, according to Greg Ousley, an assistant U.S. attorney.
“Roughly, around half million plants are cut per year in state of Kentucky and Pulaski is seen as county that grows its fair share,” said Ousley. “It’s one of the counties we talk about as a county of interest.”
It has long been a relatively easy, low-risk proposition. High-volume growers were the only ones likely to face federal prosecution; only a few plants in your soil, and you were in good shape. That’s what Up in Smoke wants to change.
“If you (grow marijuana), you will get stiff penalty for a while — it’s no slap on the wrist anymore,” said Edelen. “We hope over course of several years, this program will be a high enough deterrent that we won’t see as much (cultivation).”
Strategies have changed — “Up in Smoke” seeks to put marijuana growers behind bars by busting them on other charges. Each case is examined on an individual basis. Prosecutors check to see if the suspect has any other federal crimes that may county against them. Firearm ownership is a substantial factor — of the 49 defendants from 2007 mentioned above, 82 firearms were seized or forfeited.
“We look at the individual — Does this guy have rap sheet? Yeah, this guy has a history,” said Edelen. “Three out of every four (growers) probably carry a gun, so now there are several statutes going against them. One of them can result in up to 60 month in prison. There’s a lot of elements that go into (the initiative).”
Added Ousley, “This is a situation where if you look at the 49 defendants (last year), they include people growing 200, 300, 400 plants, possessing sawed off shotguns, homemade destructive devices, and using booby traps.”
Involved in those 49 cases, 5,000 marijuana plants were seized.
Edelen also stressed the “cost of doing business” factor as a deterrent. “If you know there’s surveillance on you (as a marijuana cultivator), you might think twice about it,” he said.
Surveillance is key. Edelen said the agencies are able put cameras in the field that will take pictures and identify growers. Additionally, there is an attorney available 24 hours for legal advice on whether its better to arrest the suspect then and there or wait to indict — providing even less of a sense of security for the cultivators.
“Up in Smoke” involves the United States Attorney’s Office, Kentucky National Guard, Kentucky State Police, United States Drug Enforcement Administration, United States Forest Service, United States Marshal’s Service, and Appalachia HIDTA. Monthly meetings are hosted which also include a representative of the Lake Cumberland Area Drug Task Force to discuss targets and strategies.
Appalachian HIDTA (High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area) is also providing a tipline that individuals can call to report cases of marijuana growth that they’ve witnessed — 1-866-424-4382.
“The tips obtained will be followed up by the investigatory components of the Governor’s Marijuana Task Force which include multiple state and federal agencies,” said Edelen.
The initiative has been so successful that other states have called to ask about what Kentucky is doing with “Up in Smoke,” in order to use the model for those areas.
“It’s drawing national attention,” said Edelen. “It’s fair to say, this is the only U.S. attorney’s office in nation working this closely with an eradication task force.”
Marijuana growth is a “major part of the economy here,” said Edelen — he said there’s a Wal-Mart in the region that leads the nation in sales of Miracle-Gro, a popular plant fertilizer — but Ousley brought to mind something far more sinister, something far more near and dear to the hearts of Pulaski Countians.
“These people growing marijuana, they’re making lots of money, many of them have looked into money laundering and other crimes like that,” said Ousley. “(When it happens) in a small town and small counties, selling (the marijuana) for money — money can equate to power.
“Think about why (former Pulaski County Sheriff) Sam Catron got killed,” he added. “(It was) a bunch of drug dealers.”
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Copyright (c) 2008, Commonwealth Journal, Somerset, Ky.
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