published Wednesday, July 11th, 2012

Thundershowers hamper Georgia chopper search for marijuana

Army National Guard LUH 72 Lakota helicopter departs the LaFayette-Barwick Airport to look for marijuana Tuesday. The state effort had five helicopters participating Tuesday high above Dade, Catoosa and Walker counties, but the weather cut the search short.
Army National Guard LUH 72 Lakota helicopter departs the LaFayette-Barwick Airport to look for marijuana Tuesday. The state effort had five helicopters participating Tuesday high above Dade, Catoosa and Walker counties, but the weather cut the search short.
Photo by Tim Barber.

LaFAYETTE, Ga. — Tuesday's heavy thundershowers were a blessing to farmers -- especially those growing marijuana in Dade, Walker and Catoosa counties.

The rain grounded five helicopters Tuesday afternoon that were on the hunt for pot patches. The choppers were able to search in the morning and didn't have any luck, but officials said they'll be back before the first frost.

"We've got at least 30 places to look at," said Patrick Doyle, interim commander of the Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit Drug Task Force.

"We get buds on some of these plants that are over a foot long" and drug task force members have found plants as high as 20 feet tall at the season's end, Doyle said. Such giant plants can yield as much as 40 or 50 pounds of pot, he said.

Sometimes growers can't be found, but other times they leave telltale clues, Doyle said, such as the 600 feet of garden hose that led from a single pot plant in the woods to a man's home.

The aerial search for pot patches is an annual event. Helicopters with the Georgia Governor's Task Force for Drug Suppression take to the skies to spot outdoor pot farms so that local drug task force members on the ground can hack the marijuana down and arrest growers.

The Barwick-LaFayette Airport was the ground base for Tuesday's operations. Vehicles stationed there included the two drug task force pickup trucks and one sport utility vehicle with trailers attached that held five all-terrain vehicles officers could use to reach remote marijuana patches.

"We're seeing a large increase in the number of grows that are occurring on Georgia's public lands," said Georgia State Patrol Lt. Eddie Williams, the task force's commander.

Mexican gangs are responsible for many of the large grow sites on public land, he said. These growers cut down trees, divert streams, leave behind trash and cause other environmental damage, he said. They camp out at the remote patches, posing a threat to hikers if the growers are armed.

"Anyone could stumble into them," Williams said. "We've not seen any violence with them here. Out West, they have."

The task force's marijuana-spotting helicopters travel all around the state, but mainly focus on areas where pot cultivation is prevalent, such as the northwest part of the state, Williams said. They've helped find 22,000 pounds of marijuana already this year, which is close to last year's annual total of 26,000 pounds.

Three of the choppers are from the state highway patrol and two are with the National Guard. The Civil Air Patrol also provides a plane that flies high above the choppers to aid with such things as radio communication in mountainous terrain.

about Tim Omarzu...

Tim Omarzu covers education for the Times Free Press. Omarzu is a longtime journalist who has worked as a reporter and editor at daily and weekly newspapers in Michigan, Nevada and California.

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