LANE COUNTY, Ore. -- Cruising 100 miles per hour over western Oregon, spotters scan the hillsides near Dexter Lake as they hunt for illegal marijuana gardens.
“At about nine o'clock,” said Lane County Sheriff’s Office Lt. Dennis Ewing, gesturing to the left of the helicopter. “There are several plants spread out on the hillside over there.”
Ewing is surveying for illegal marijuana gardens, the first step law enforcement takes against illegal gardens. But spotting these grow sites requires a trained eye.
“The leaves start yellowing, they don't have that nice bright flash,” said Ewing, gazing down on a well camouflaged pot garden. “This late in the season they're hard to pick up, you have to look at texture and shape more so than color.”
Ewing is one of a dozen aerial spotters the county uses to identify illegal pot gardens. It takes about five years of training before a spotter can accurately identify a marijuana plant from a shrub from 4,000 feet in the air.
On this particular September day, the spotting season is coming to an end. The marijuana leaves are beginning to turn, and growers are getting ready to harvest the marijuana buds for drying.
Like 70 percent of illegal marijuana gardens in the United States, the particular growth the LCSO Sheriff’s helicopter is hovering over is on federal property. With plenty of access to sun and rainwater, public lands are a hot spot for growing.
“We have areas of the county that we block off,” said Ewing. “We will schedule those for flights and then those targets of those gardens that these spotters locate will be coordinated with the ground crew.”
Once a target is identified and it is confirmed not to belong to a medical marijuana card holder, the ground operations get to work.
“We come in, take pictures of everything we see - and then we get chopping,” said LCSO Deputy Marvin Combs, walking toward a group of 10-foot tall plants.
“Just out of this cluster here," Combs said, "you could probably two and a half pounds of dried marijuana. That’s about $3,000 on the streets right now.”
Deputies said these growers have a pretty good quality of life. Marijuana is a lucrative business, and they’re growing it on property they don’t own.
But on federal ground, deputies said they are increasingly finding gardens with connections to Mexican drug cartels.
“In the last 5 years we’ve seen a pretty good increase in cartel activity - and it’s active,” said Ewing. “I’m not prepared to give any numbers right now, but we’ve worked cartels this year.”
According to the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Drug Intelligence Center’s 2010 national drug threat assessment, the number of plants removed from public land grew more than 300 percent from 2004 to 2008, primarily from pot gardens operated by Mexican cartels.
So, is county law enforcement winning the battle against illegal marijuana?
LCSO said the battle is fifty-fifty, and although they wish they had more resources to dedicate to marijuana eradication, they remain optimistic that they hold the upper hand.
“We may not get them this year, we may not get them next year," Ewing siad, "but time and numbers are on our side. We'll get them eventually.”