Law enforcement's eyes in sky force pot crops indoors

From April to October, while N.C. farmers are planting, tending and harvesting their crops, hundreds of law enforcement officers engage in the annual ritual of weed-pulling.

The Marijuana Eradication Program is a joint effort that uses federal funds, state-owned aircraft and county sheriff's officers to find and destroy marijuana plants. After more than three decades, investigators say, the program has helped bring about a change in the industry: Local growers have begun to move their operations indoors, hidden from aerial spotters, leaving only tiny plots for pilots to search for in the verdant landscape.

When spotters do find a large crop, usually divided into parcels over several acres where the landowners are unaware of their presence, investigators think the plants are often being tended as part of an organized criminal effort.

“The trend has been toward smaller patches and better concealment, and there's a tremendous trend toward indoor growing,” said Durb Turner, special agent in charge of the air wing of North Carolina's State Bureau of Investigation.

Pilots for the SBI, the N.C. Highway Patrol and the N.C. National Guard try to fly in each of the state's 100 counties at least once during the growing season. Marine Patrol aircraft also help. They scan places where investigators have found pot in the past, and those where their detective work suggests it might be growing now. It's an old-fashioned form of sleuthing that works best against a low-tech criminal.

“The easiest time to find it is when they first set the seedlings out in the spring,” said Franklin County Sheriff's Detective William Mitchell, one of many local narcotics officers who have attended a state-sponsored “spotters school.”

“(Growers) just go out and clear a space and put the seedlings in the ground,” Mitchell said. “All you got to do is go up and look for the dots.”

It's a bit more challenging in late July, when the trees are full, milkweed is as tall as a house and a marijuana plant blends more easily with surrounding foliage.

Thirty years ago, Turner says, the biggest plots were usually planted by local growers. Some of those growers aged out of the business or just got tired of worrying they might get caught and lose their investment, Turner says. Some still raise a few plants, scattered from place to place over a broad area.

They have been followed, Turner thinks, by growers who have moved their production indoors, setting up elaborate greenhouse systems where high-quality plants can be raised year-round.

Investigators say those are more difficult to find. When plants are spotted outside on private property, law officers can move in immediately. But to raid a house, a search warrant is needed, and it's more difficult to establish the probable cause a judge or magistrate would require.

After news of a big Harnett County bust traveled across the country, Sheriff Larry Rollins says, he was inundated with calls and e-mail from people questioning the value of putting so many resources to work on investigations that rarely result in arrests. When charges are made, they are usually for manufacturing or trafficking marijuana. Even then, police say, the courts treat the charges lightly.