YORK, S.C. - What is it about marijuana farming and York County?

This year, more than two-thirds of all marijuana plants seized in South Carolina were in York County -- 8,415 plants worth about $21 million.

And the six-week harvest season that extends through early November is just starting.

Wilkes County, in the N.C. mountains -- once considered the moonshine capital of the South -- has become known as one of the state's largest growers of marijuana. But, Wilkes' total seizure by authorities this year -- about 4,000 plants -- is less than half of York County's.

"That's a lot of pot plants down there in South Carolina," said Wilkes County Sheriff Dane Mastin. "It's hard to tell whether folks are just growing a lot of it, or your local law enforcement is just really good at finding it."

On Aug. 26, York County officers found 3,289 plants worth $8.22 million in 10 fields near Strait and Auten roads in southern York County. The bushy plants ranged from 1 to 10 feet high; it was the largest seizure in county history. The plants were spotted from the air, and coordinates were radioed to officers on the ground.

Most large-scale pot farmers are "guerrilla growers" -- they plant on land they do not own -- like this pot farm, on utility right-of-ways and in reforested pine fields. Prosecutors say it's practically impossible to make arrests in these cases unless they catch the growers with the plants.

York County officials have made 13 arrests this year, but almost all have been in small-scale backyard busts -- usually less than a dozen plants in plastic planters.

York County officers who are responsible for finding the pot -- the official term is "pot eradication" -- are as perplexed as anyone about why this year's is the greatest seizure since 1989.

"We're basically doing the same thing we do every year. We gather tips and we schedule flyovers," said Lt. Kelly Carroll Lovelace, a commander with the York County Multijurisdictional Drug Enforcement Unit. "And we have about the same amount (tips and flyovers) as we do every year. ... But this summer, it seems like every time we turned around, there was another field of marijuana."

At first, Lovelace assumed the nearly 75 inches of rain in the past year had made the pot plants more prolific and bushier, and may have helped prompt pot farmers to plant more.

Experts in pot plant propagation say perhaps the biggest factors in successfully growing pot in the Piedmont is irrigation and 8 to 10 hours a day of direct sunlight. Most pot fields are near creeks, and growers often use 5-gallon buckets to hand-irrigate the plants, along with a water-soluble fertilizer.

But David Mattox of the S.C. State Law Enforcement Division says last spring's extra rainfall backfired on many pot farmers.

"It was too much too soon, and we found numerous places where it simply washed away the plants," said Mattox, who helps coordinate flyovers with the S.C. National Guard and local law enforcement agencies. "Plus, the rain and cloudy conditions cut back on the amount of sunlight."

In North Carolina, pot plant seizures are actually down from last year, when 112,000 plants were seized; this year through mid-September, about 40,000 plants have been confiscated.

So why has York County found enough pot to fill three tractor trailers while adjacent counties such as Mecklenburg and Lancaster barely have enough to fill a grocery bag?

"In a place like Charlotte, you're just not going to have a lot of marijuana fields because there's not as much open land," said Sgt. Michael Crowley of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg police. "Plus, with a busy airport and people flying all over the place like we have, somebody is going to spot the pot. And pot growers know it will be spotted, so they don't plant it."

In many urban areas, pot farmers often move indoors and grow plants in basement greenhouses lit with florescent lamps.

Law enforcement officials agree flyovers are the most effective tool in eradicating outdoor pot plants. A trained pilot knows areas pot farmers prefer -- near creeks and away from highways and houses. Pilots look for the telltale "neon green" bushy plants, which often stand out from surrounding weeds and plants. Legendary SLED pilot Sonny Huggins, now retired, could spot a single plant from a 500-foot flyover.

There are often seemingly conflicting reports about the amount of pot plants being recovered and the amount of pot being grown.

"The facts are that marijuana is growing in practically every county," said SLED's Chief Robert Stewart. "My guess is that some counties like York are just more aggressive in scheduling flyovers. And the only way you're going to find pot fields are with flyovers, or a tip from a hunter or someone who stumbles across a field."

York County Sheriff Bruce Bryant says pot plant eradication is a labor-intensive process and virtually impossible without aggressive aerial reconnaissance.

"You've got to have a plane or helicopter and a bunch of folks on the ground to gather the pot. And let me tell you, it's a lot of hot, jungle grunt work in those pot fields," said Bryant. "The bottom line is whether we have enough rainfall or not, this is a perfect place to grow marijuana and people are going to grow it. ... And if you don't find it and cut it down, they're just gonna grow more of it."

Anatomy of a Marijuana Plant

Area pot farmers usually start their plants from seeds indoors and then transplant the seedlings to outdoors by late spring. Plants need to be irrigated -- either by 5-gallon buckets or drip hoses -- and fertilized.

To stimulate the production of THC, the substance that makes pot smokers high, growers selectively prune and even pollinate the plants.

The plants grow to a height of about 10 feet and reach full maturity and are ready for harvest by mid-October.

A properly cultivated pot plant can produce a pound or more of THC-laden bud, which can then be harvested, dried, packaged and sold on the street for up to $2,500.

Pubdate: Sun, 28 Sep 2003
Source: Charlotte Observer (NC)
Copyright: 2003 The Charlotte Observer
Contact: opinion@charlotteobserver.com
Website: http://www.charlotte.com/mld/observer/