Join Date: Oct 2007
this article is actually really good. talks to a man who's lived in kentucky his whole life and grows marijuana to support his family.
The New Bootleggers
In Kentucky, the hills are alive with the sound of helicopter gunships and the smell of burning weed. But how long can the Feds wage war against dirt-poor farmers with nothing left to lose?
Maxim, Oct 2002
By By Christopher Ketcham
The attack choppers skim the trees, cutting through the July heat on another search-and-destroy mission. It looks like a scene from Apocalypse Now, but it’s just another summer morning in the steamy backwoods of eastern Kentucky, where cannabis is the cash crop that makes any legitimate local commerce look like chump change. The lonely dirt roads are patrolled by armed soldiers, National Guardsmen in Humvees, ready to fan out over the countryside to slash and burn incredibly lucrative patches of Kentucky pot and shoot the shit out of anybody who gives them a hard time for it.
“Boogieman,” a hillbilly horticulturalist with pot patches in this particular hollow, hears the thunder in the distance long before the attack. He drops his hoe, carefully places his beer in the underbrush, and throws his fist into the air. “You futhermuckers!” he yells, disappearing into the foliage. “Leave us growers the hell alone!”
Such is the fuzzy relationship between local marijuana farmers and a federal government hellbent on torching the cash crop that keeps them just above the poverty line. Year after year the government’s marijuana war grinds on in the endlessly replanted Appalachian pot fields that mainline into America’s biggest illicit drug market. As for who’s winning—or whether it’s even worth the fight—you may want to take this singular fact into consideration. The startling truth is that pot is now America’s number one cash crop, with total annual sales of $32 billion. Anybody else got the munchies?
The War: Us vs. U.S.
About 40 percent of the nation’s dope comes from the hills of Kentucky, Tennessee, and West Virginia, where the humid summers and lush hilltops produce enough pot to keep a huge portion of the country with its collective head in a bag of Doritos. Of these three states, Kentucky is the cannabis king. State officials report that in the past decade they’ve destroyed close to $11 billion worth of pot. But despite the kick-ass combat machinery and the 500 burn missions they fly each summer, the war hasn’t done much to the marijuana market—except drive up prices.
But that’s typical of what passes for the smell of victory around here. This being a war, everybody wants a piece of the action and a share of the credit. DEA, FBI, IRS, U.S. Marshals Service—all have agents in this jungle. Cost to the taxpayers? Try six million bucks each year.
Our bud-growing buddy Boogieman, 41, has raised eight kids with the money he’s made tilling weed. Cannabis feeds families and keeps whole counties from financial doom. Cultivating that crop right under the nose of the law is embraced as the natural evolution of the bootlegger tradition of their grandpappies. In Clay County, everyone from middle-aged housewives to youth gangs grows weed. “Ninety percent of the people around here has growed it at one time or another,” Boogieman tells me, standing by one of his many patches.
The futility of waging war against a local way of life has pitted police against friends and family, sometimes resulting in sheriffs switching sides as a matter of loyalty—or opportunity. Dope money has sparked corruption scandals and the convictions of at least a half-dozen sheriffs and deputies in doper bribery rackets over the past 10 years. In Breathitt County, just northeast of Clay, Sheriff Ray Clemons was busted for covering up a dope-growing and -distribution ring that included his own daughter, and Sheriff’s Deputy Berry Shouse Jr. was locked up with another deputy for distributing low-grade Mexican weed mixed with superpotent Kentucky green.
And it gets worse. Just last April, during a campaign in Pulaski County, incumbent sheriff Sam Catron was assassinated, allegedly under the orders of the opposing candidate, one of his own former deputies, named Jeff Morris. The deputy’s confessed co-conspirators included “Fingers” White, an accused big-time dope grower looking for protection and willing to pay. Together they allegedly offered local badass Danny Shelley a deputy’s position if he’d bump off Catron. On April 13, the sheriff was stumping at a festive fish-fry when a single shot blew out his brains from the tree line, 100 yards away. Shelley was caught instantly, and within minutes he was flipping on his hillbilly henchmen. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for all three.
The heat brought to bear against an impoverished population with few economic options has led in some cases to criminal organization—and violence. The occasional “hillbilly crime family” has cropped up to protect its investments. Most famous among them was the so-called “Cornbread Mafia” of the 1980s. This outfit was considered the largest domestic dope cartel in the history of the United States. The Cornbread kids got their name by hiding pot plants in corn rows on dozens of farms in Kentucky and the Midwest. They functioned like a cooperative, with affiliated growers sharing equipment, field workers, and muscle.
When authorities caught up with the group in the late ’80s, more than 180 tons of marijuana were seized and 73 Cornbread “family” operatives were arrested in nine states. At least 54 of them—friends, neighbors, sons, and brothers—hailed from Marion County, Kentucky. During his trial, John Robert Boone, one of the grass godfathers, explained to the court: “We were working with our hands on the earth God gave us.” The judge was not impressed, and Boone was sentenced to 20 years in federal prison.
But organized crime is the exception. The majority of “holler dopers” are lone wolves who grow pot in their own patches, or “hollers,” and sell it to distributors. “Mostly, it’s every man for himself,” says attorney Hunter Payne, who represents dozens of dopers in Kentucky courts.
Boogieman is far from a crime lord. “I’m in it because it puts food in my children’s mouths,” he says over a shared joint. He hides his patches on state-owned mountainsides or abandoned coal land. Small farmers plant on public land because if they get busted growing on their own property, the government can seize it. Not surprisingly, more than 200,000 plants are destroyed each year in the dense Daniel Boone National Forest alone. Boogieman says he loses more than 50 percent of his crop to marauding guardsmen each year. What he does harvest—20 to 30 pounds a season—he sells for $3,000 a pound to a local broker, a guy with cousins in urban markets. The broker drives it north to Cincinnati and Detroit, or south to Chattanooga and Atlanta, or east to Washington and New York, where it trickles down to the streets, retailed by dealers who couldn’t find Kentucky on a map.
Smoking ’Em Out
State Police Sergeant Ronnie Ray is one of the main guys the government sends to scare the shit out of all the Kentucky Boogiemen. He’s in charge of eradication for the Governor’s Marijuana Strike Force. He took us on a burn mission to see how Kentucky intends to put the local industry up in smoke.
A 33-year trooper, Sergeant Ray looks like he was sent from central casting: fatigues, crew cut, boots, pistol strapped to his leg. With all his choppers, and commandos rappelling to the ground in battle gear, this seems like a war game—but Ray’s men aren’t playing.
Big-time farmers, the guys with thousands of plants, tend to protect their investments with ingenious booby traps: makeshift land mines, punji stakes smeared with shit, shotgun shells discharged by rattraps. The cute ones tie poisonous rattlesnakes to the stalks of their plants. These party favors are intended not so much for cops as for local nimrods dumb enough to try and snatch a $2,000 cannabis stalk. Most citizens, though, steer clear of these hollows, for fear they won’t come back. A hotel clerk tells me her uncle was nearly blown up recently near a tripwired plot: “Uncle Vernon was four-wheeling on a trail, but the doper had fenced off the top of that hill with fishing twine tied to grenades. Vern got thrown 30 feet out of his seat in a huge explosion.”
Uncle Vernon was fortunate. Some growers camp at their plots with AK-47s. Two years ago a farmer in Knox County was sniped at on his own property after he stumbled onto a patch with his bulldozer. He raised his plow to block the bullets and escaped.
In 1993 troopers went head-to-head with a gun-toting doper. “A helicopter touched down on a patch near a grower’s home, and the grower came out with an assault rifle,” recalls Sergeant Ray. The crew fled, but when the ground team arrived at the home, Gary Shepherd, the man of the house, was perched in a lawn chair with his rifle on his lap. “You’ll have to kill me to get my pot,” Shepherd said as a SWAT team surrounded the house. When he raised his weapon suddenly, troopers opened fire, and the holler doper was obliterated by 9 mm gunfire.
The troopers and the National Guard always prepare for the worst. They wear Kevlar vests and carry M-16s and handguns. Ray has 200 men, mostly inexperienced guardsmen. He has nine choppers available daily.
Today we’re on a ground mission. The target: Shadow Wolf Hollow in Breathitt County. We drive for miles up back roads into a remote forest. The choppers provide air cover as guardsmen fan out on foot, nervously thinking of how a punji stake would feel in the calf. A helicopter spotter carefully talks them through the bush by radio.
And then he drops a smoke flare anointing the patch. Hot purple tongues of smoke rise over the forest, and the guardsmen go into action. They swing machetes at the weed, counting as they go: 20, 30, hundreds of plants. “Not enough hours in the day,” Ray says.
The plants they find are small and budless—eight- and 10-footers. July is early in the season. It isn’t until the first weeks of September that the females bud large. A mature sinsemilla plant grows up to 20 feet, has a trunk four inches in diameter, and can weigh upwards of 50 pounds. “Those buds grow till you can squeeze the juice out of them and it runs down your hands,” says Sergeant Ray admiringly.
“Sarge, you sound like a pothead.”
“Maybe,” he smiles, sounding caught. But Sergeant Ray has never smoked a joint in his life and never wanted to. “As much as the growers love to grow ’em, we love to tear ’em out.”
By dusk they have snatched 500 stalks. The guardsmen pile it in a clearing and douse it with fuel. “I’d say we get between 60 and 70 percent of the crop,” Ray tells me. “We’re just holding the line in the sand, just keeping ’em in check.” Last year Ray’s men arrested 408 growers tending plots; since 1998 they’ve netted more than 2,000. But they’ve hardly stemmed the availability of the product, and new growers keep emerging to fill the vacuum.
Fighting on the Wrong Front
According to locals, pot keeps some people off welfare. It keeps more out of the grave. “In counties like Clay, the economies have been dependent on marijuana for years,” says Paul Croley, a Kentucky lawyer who represents dozens of growers. In 1990, 100,000 plants were burned in Leslie County, and there were widespread cases of local businesses going bankrupt.
The townies talk about a far more dangerous drug in these parts—methamphetamine. Brewed in bathtubs by amateurs, “bathtub crank” turns users into psychos. The volatile chemicals, including starter fluid and ammonia, tend to explode, and the roads in Clay County are littered with charred houses where brewers have blown themselves and their families to bits. Seizures of meth labs have skyrocketed in Kentucky, from 19 in 1998 to 160 last year, and arrests for distribution more than doubled from 1999 to 2000. Why? One hundred bucks’ worth of ingredients can produce a batch worth $2,000. The DEA says there were 51 meth-related deaths in Kentucky between 1999 and 2001, and 23 last year alone.
The meth producers, who are often users, make dopers look like Mr. Rogers. “They’re lifetime criminals—crazy and dangerous,” says Babe, a 43-year-old Clay Country mother of four who grows marijuana. Her 17-year-old son, Jeff, OD’d on meth when he was 15 and barely survived. “I never knowed of anybody around here blowing up smoking pot,” she says.
People here are protective of their pot. The neighborly feeling toward growers extends into the court system, according to Ray. “There are counties where you will not get a marijuana conviction in a local court,” he says. “We have to go to the federal level to get our cases through.”
State prosecutor Thomas Handy says growers tend to be “good neighbors” who spread dough to people who need it. “In hollows populated by extended family, there might be a majority of people who are connected to the business,” says Handy. Family won’t rat, nor will they look kindly on jurors who convict a cousin.
A Home Made From Grass
Boogieman is half in the bag when I visit his spread. He wears his hair to his shoulders, listens to AC/DC, and has stoner tattooed on his leg—a bona fide hillbilly headbanger. We smoke joints in his “slug shack,” an eight-by-10-foot cabin that sits beside his ramshackle wood-frame home—all paid for with homegrown greenbacks.
Later we walk drunk in the hills, and Boogieman salutes his patches. “I cart water up the mountains,” he says. “Work hard. The bud grows long as my arm, dude! This is our country. It takes care of us. We take care of it.
“They say we’re bad people out here. I drink my beer, and I help the old lady across the street. Think I put my son in danger, man? Hey, Doug,” he asks his oldest son—raised on marijuana money. “I ever given you dope?”
“Nope,” says Doug.
Back in the slug shack, Boogieman suddenly seems pissed and runs his finger gently across my throat. “With people like me, your throat could be cut, right?” Then he tries to stare me down.
“I don’t believe you’d do that,” I say.
“No, I wouldn’t,” he grins. “Because I’m a pothead, man.”
Take Your War and…
Boogieman has never been busted. He’s been lucky. Growing five plants or more is a felony in Kentucky, punishable by up to five years in prison. Get a second offense and you’re in for up to 10 years.
Even some of the guys who chase him through the woods don’t want to bust their neighbors. Moreover, they’re afraid to. “I got mixed feelings,” says one nervous guardsman who grew up here. An officer passes by, and the kid clams up. Like all the grunts, he keeps his nametag covered by tape for fear of repercussion. Country folk turn their backs on these guys. Restaurants won’t serve them; gas stations won’t fill their tanks. They ain’t family no more.
Gatewood Galbraith, the infamous Kentucky attorney, crusades for marijuana decriminalization. He smokes every day and wants pot regulated and taxed to pay for schooling, housing, and education in the counties where it’s grown. “This is a war against our people,” Galbraith says. “Marijuana is harmless. In this war on drugs, we waste the law-enforcement dollar on a substance that poses almost no threat to our society.”
Even the sheriffs—the uncorrupted ones—think this war is a boondoggle. Says Clay County’s Edd Jordan: “Marijuana doesn’t even come near to being a drug problem. Take the money and spend it on the meth problem.”
But the war drags on. In July Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky announced he had secured nearly $1 million in additional funding for fiscal year 2003—adding to the $17 million already appropriated since 1999 for “counter-drug operations” in Kentucky. In August yet another $3.6 million was secured for the National Guard in Daniel Boone forest.
When Boogieman hears that, he fires up another number and laughs.
Last edited by George Hayduke; 11-18-2007 at 12:40 AM..