Saratoga County

Massive pot sweep ‘home run’ for police

For pilots of the state police aviation unit, finding marijuana-growing operations can be as simple

For pilots of the state police aviation unit, finding marijuana-growing operations can be as simple as looking down.

Mature cannabis plants have a hue that clearly distinguishes them from other vegetation. When in large clusters or fields, the plants are often easily spotted from a Bell 430 helicopter.

“The color is really a brilliant emerald green,” said Sgt. Kathy Humphries, a pilot with the state police. “It really pops out against the natural vegetation.”

And that’s exactly what happened at one undisclosed location in the Washington County town of Kingsbury. Investigators used a combination of intelligence and helicopter flights to collect 6,500 plants — the largest single haul of marijuana the aviation unit has ever assisted in finding.

“The longer they flew, the more marijuana they found,” said Maj. Charles Guess, the head of the aviation unit.

Members of the Community Narcotics Enforcement Team descended on two acres of private property near the Champlain Canal to begin hauling away the mature plants on Wednesday and Thursday. The eradication even exceeded the total the aviation unit discovered in 2011, when more than 4,000 plants were taken.

In total, authorities cut down more than 8,000 plants as part of a three-day, cross-county eradication effort involving nearly a dozen local police agencies and the Army National Guard. Washington County Undersheriff John Winchell anticipates about a dozen arrests from the eradication effort, even though none of them are expected to be connected to the largest crop site.

The massive pot haul was uncovered in a creek bed that provided irrigation for the plants and was so remote that it was difficult to access from any point except for along the canal. Troopers used two helicopters to airlift the harvested plants to a staging ground, where they were bagged and slated for destruction.

Winchell doubted the large field would lead to an arrest. He speculated that it may have seeded itself from another operation in the area, given that the plants were between 10 and 15 feet tall.

“It was a well-established field,” he said.

Ordinarily, authorities are only able to cover part of the county aerially. This year, Winchell said county law enforcement sought assistance from the state police and guard choppers, allowing them to cover nearly the entire expanse of rural landscape.

The find in Washington County comes less than a week after the state police and guard pilots helped spot a large growing operation in Schoharie County. State police first spotted 100 plants growing on private property in the town of Summit, allowing investigators to uncover a structure that stowed hundreds of gallon bags filled with processed marijuana.

Sgt. Don Dorn was flying the helicopter when the plants were first spotted. He said the plants were nearly five feet tall and were easily spotted from the sky. “Most of the plants were pretty big,” he said.

But eradicating marijuana isn’t cheap or easy. Given the nature of the plant, police must clip down any crop they find by hand because harvesting machines would simply help spread it to other locations.

Relying on helicopters to spot the plants is also costly, though state police officials couldn’t pinpoint an exact cost of the annual operation. In 2011, state police flew a total of 175 hours in the effort to eradicate marijuana operations during harvest season, which runs between July and October.

Humphries said the standard flight to spot the plants takes about two hours and can burn about 625 pounds of fuel — or roughly 100 gallons.

“I think we all agree this has to be performed by someone,” Guess said. “I can’t say this is the most effective way of doing it.”

Marijuana is also impossible to fully eradicate, especially since there’s an almost an insatiable black market demand for the drug. Even with the annual flights, state police continue to find new operations cropping up across the state.

Advocates for the legalization of marijuana question why tax dollars are being spent on an effort that they say will ultimately prove futile. Even if the local supply of marijuana is diminished, the drug will find its way back into the state from Canada or Mexico, said Kevin Jones, the director of the Capital Region’s chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

“We have people who want it, there’s an economy that’s being served and it’s not going to go away if we take the plants out of the ground,” he said. “It’s a blatant display of the waste and dysfunction of the drug war.”

Authorities don’t agree. Guess said marijuana cultivation is much like any other crime in that there’s no room to tolerate it.

“From my perspective, anytime we can get these plants and keep the drug off the streets … that’s a home run,” he said.

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