Ohio cracks down on outdoor marijuana sites

Ohio has been one of the country’s most successful states at finding and seizing illegal outdoor marijuana growing operations, part of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s decades-long effort to battle what it calls the only major “drug of abuse” grown inside United States borders.

Operated by the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation, which is part of the Attorney General’s Office, the program shut down 1,079 outdoor growing sites in 2011. That ranked No. 2 nationally behind only California (1,326) in the DEA’s Domestic Cannabis Eradication/Suppression Program. Ohio has ranked in the top five nationally in outdoor grow busts in each of the past five years.

BCI receives about $500,000 per year from the DEA for the program, much of which is used to rent or lease helicopters or aircraft to search for growing operations from the sky while working with county sheriffs offices. Trained spotters travel with three or four flights around the state each day during the summer and look for anything from a single plant outside a home to thousands of plants in the middle of cornfields.

“We have a multi-pronged approach, and this prong is certainly very important to us,” said Richard Isaacson, spokesman for the DEA’s Detroit field office, about identifying growing operations. “We’ve had some real success eradicating some of these fields, which attacks the Mexican cartels that have moved more into our region.”

Busts can range from a few plants to tens of thousands. One notable haul came in 2010 in Pike County, when agents were forced to burn 22,000 plants worth approximately $22 million because they were too extensive to transport for disposal elsewhere. That helped 2010’s effort reach 105,121 eradicated plants in Ohio, more than double some recent years.

Authorities said growing conditions, size of individual seizures and weather conditions for flying influence an individual year’s take. They stress that while finding and busting marijuana might not seem to be the most pressing drug need to some, it remains a focus. Much of the marijuana grown in Ohio stays in the state, and it often creates or encourages violence and other crimes, officials said.

“In Ohio, we’re not an exporter of marijuana,” said Scott Duff, a BCI special agent supervisor for Ohio’s marijuana eradication program. “Marijuana that’s grown here stays here, gets into our schools, gets into kids’ hands.

“We can debate the marijuana issue until we’re blue in the face, but the bottom line is — and I’ve been doing this for 27 years — marijuana is a gateway drug, period. I don’t care what anybody says, this is important.”

Finding grows

Last week, Duff stood on the tarmac at Dayton-Wright Brothers Airport in Springboro and watched one of the state’s leased helicopters take off with a spotter in tow. The spotter is one of four employed by BCI, although the unit has several backups. They are trained to look for even a single plant from the air, Duff said.

Things weren’t always so sophisticated.

“We would get a tip about people taking buckets of water into cornfields, and I would get a fire truck and put the ladder up,” said Gene Kelly, the Clark County sheriff. “I personally would go up top and have deputies take those long flags like you use on bicycles into the corn. I’d say, ‘Go left,’ or, ‘Go right,’ until they hit the grow site.”

Much of the illegal outdoor growing happens in the middle of agriculture fields, which can make them easy to spot from the sky, especially in the current drought conditions. The BCI spotter radios to officers or agents on the ground when spying a grow site and directs them to a location.

Arrests can be difficult to make in such cases because many times the growers are not tending the sites. Other times, agents catch them in the act.

“Sometimes they panic, run out and start cutting down the marijuana,” said Richard K. Jones, the Butler County sheriff. “They’ll try to throw it in a truck and speed away, and the helicopter gets on the (loud speaker) and says, ‘You can’t outrun the helicopter, we’re already here.’ “

Suspects have included everyone from retirees to teachers. Others are more vicious, protecting their crops with guns, booby traps, trained dogs or fish hooks. Some have transported lizards to keep bugs away.

A majority of the outdoor growing operations are conducting on someone else’s land, whether public or private. David Ferrell, director of law enforcement for the U.S. Forest Service, was asked to testify in December 2011 for a Senate hearing titled “Exploring the Problem of Domestic Marijuana Cultivation.” Ferrell told the Caucus on International Narcotics Control that grow sites in 20 states and 67 national forests had caused “severe” damage. Many of those were in California, which annually leads the country in marijuana growing statistics.

Ferrell estimated that it costs $5,000 an acre to clean up a marijuana grow site, with increased costs for areas involving streams. The U.S. Forest Service noted the size of an average growing site ranges from 10 to 20 acres.

In Ohio, much of that damage is done to private farms.

“Farmers are big on private property rights,” said Joe Cornely, spokesman for the Ohio Farm Bureau. “The idea of having potentially armed groups carving out a piece of private ground, that’s very discomforting.”

Mexican cartels

Pike County, in south-central Ohio, was again in the news for a marijuana bust this month. On Aug. 16, the Ohio Attorney General’s Office announced that authorities had uncovered a site containing 1,238 plants. Officials made a connection to a rising concern in Ohio’s eradication efforts: Mexican drug cartels.

The first site connected to such a cartel in Ohio was found in 2007, Duff said. Since, more than a dozen have surfaced. Their characteristics include several people seemingly living on site to guard the area, including sleeping areas and cooking areas.

Officials have also seen more operations move indoors in an attempt to avoid overhead searches. Ohio’s indoor busts have ranged from 311 in 2008 to 62 last year.

“We know a lot of it is moving indoors,” Duff said. “If you move indoors, you have to control the environment, and that controls how many crops can be produced per year.”

Officials have tweaked their aerial searches for signs of indoor operations. At times, they have spotted just a few outdoor plants from the air that arouse suspicion, and a search of the house will find larger indoor grows. At night, fluorescent lights of different colors that help the marijuana grow can be detected. Utility companies have even alerted authorities to drastically spiking utility bills, as growing marijuana indoors takes significant electricity.

That energy is costly. In a 2011 report, Evan Mills, a staff scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory at the University of California, estimated that indoor marijuana production requires about 1 percent of the nation’s electricity consumption. That energy, plus gas for transport, costs indoor growers about $5 billion per year, Mills estimated.

Those numbers underline the commitment of growers, making it even more important to continue eradication efforts, authorities said. Asked how many days each year BCI operates the program, Duff paused.

“I don’t want to give too much away operationally,” he said. “Let’s just say it’s hopefully a long, hot summer.”

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