Reefer Madness

Marijuana has not been de facto legalized, and the war on drugs is not just about cocaine and heroin. In fact, today, when we don't have enough jail cells for murderers, rapists, and other violent criminals, there may be more people in federal and state prisons for marijuana offenses than at any other time in U.S. history

Claude Atkinson, Ernest Montgomery, and Mark Young met in the family room of Young's house in early October. The price of the marijuana was set at $1,200 a pound. If Young found buyers, he would receive a commission of $100 for every pound sold. Not long after, Atkinson and Montgomery returned to Young's house, where they were introduced to two men from Florida who were acting on behalf of someone seeking to buy all the marijuana the group could supply. Atkinson offered a hundred pounds a week; the marijuana was still being manicured and could not be delivered all at once. Within days a man from New York arrived at Young's house with $120,000 in a cardboard box. While the New York buyer inspected the marijuana at Montgomery's Indianapolis house, Atkinson remained behind, counting the money. The deal was completed, and Young was handed $10,000 in cash. The New York buyer eventually paid for 600 more pounds, in transactions that took place at Montgomery's house. By Christmas all the high-quality marijuana was gone, the last 200 pounds either distributed to workers who had helped with various tasks or sold to an acquaintance of Montgomery's in Illinois.

The town of Eminence, Indiana, is about twenty-five miles west of Indianapolis. Near its only intersection is a Citizens Bank, a small church, a convenience store, and a post office built of concrete blocks and painted royal blue. The town boasts 180 inhabitants and looks as though it has not seen much new construction since the interval between the world wars. There are countless small towns like Eminence across the Midwest, slightly faded but still eulogized as the heartland of this country. To reach the farm used by R.P.Z. Investments, one must leave Eminence on a narrow country road and then turn onto a dirt road and drive for a long stretch, past fields of fifty to a hundred acres where corn, hay, soybeans, and wheat are grown, past modest farms with collapsing outbuildings, an occasional trailer home, and rusted cars on cinder blocks. Farther west the land is flat, the acreage of each plot enormous, but here the countryside feels long settled, with hedges and trees marking boundary lines. After cleaning out the barn, Atkinson and Montgomery allowed the lease on Martha Brummett's property to expire. The one-story farmhouse has been painted beige by its latest occupants; the barn remains bright red. There is a porch on the front of the house, an enclosed patio on one side, and a swing set on the lawn. Looking at this humble farm, one would hardly believe that more than a million dollars' worth of marijuana had been grown there in the space of about three months.

Inside The Industry

STEVE White looks like an ordinary Indiana farmer, with slightly unkempt hair, a graying beard, teeth stained by nicotine, and strong hands. The day we met, he wore an old flannel shirt, gray pants, and battered work boots. His voice has a low rural twang. He seems to belong in an old pickup, riding through a vast dusty field. White is the Indiana coordinator for the Drug Enforcement Administration's Cannabis Eradication/Suppression Program. Of his twenty-six years in federal law enforcement, twenty-one have been spent in Indiana, working undercover. He knows the state backwards and forwards—has walked it, driven it, and flown low over it every summer, scrutinizing hills and farmland. Nobody ever thinks he is a cop. He gets along well with rural people. He grew up in New York City and attended P.S. 20; his father worked on Wall Street. He travels to London each year to indulge a passion for collecting English antique toy soldiers. Special Agent White would be an implausible character in any work of fiction. Savvy, articulate, self-deprecating, and blunt, he defies easy categorization and probably knows more about growing marijuana than most of the people he arrests.

Claude Atkinson was an extremely talented grower with a "good product," White says—and "a super salesman." The operation near Eminence was of average size for its time. It is difficult, even from the air, to find marijuana hidden in corn: "Remember North by Northwest?" White says. "Cary Grant in the cornfield? We don't have cornfields like that anymore, with wide rows. They broadcast the stuff, and it's just thicker than hell." Sometimes patches of marijuana will be distributed here and there amid hundreds of acres. Discovering one may not lead to the others. Growers tend to be much more concerned about hiding their marijuana from thieves than from the government. A rural underworld has emerged around marijuana, secretive and unknown to outsiders; booby traps are laid in cornfields. There is now a group of people in the Marijuana Belt, known as "patch pirates," who earn a living solely by stealing marijuana from growers, whom they follow. White acknowledges that the booby traps are usually aimed at patch pirates, not his own men; nevertheless, fishhooks strung at eye level on fishing line are nondiscriminatory. Outdoor marijuana farms have become smaller in the past few years, though last summer White's agents found "60,000 beautiful plants" on a farm in Tippecanoe County. The case proved a disappointment: the DEA never found the grower. "What I want is bodies," White explains. "I don't give a damn about the dope—that's just something we're going to burn up." His job involves a daily cat-and-mouse pursuit of marijuana growers, with both sides changing tactics, adopting new technologies, and often, after an arrest, amicably discussing tricks of the trade. White harbors no animosity toward his prey. "These are not heroin or cocaine dealers," he says. "They're not violent. I find a lot of them personally engaging." What they are doing is against the law, however, and White loves tracking them down. He has had a good deal of success lately. In 1992 Indiana led the nation in federal arrests for marijuana. Last year it ranked third.

Take a map of the United States and draw a circle, including within its circumference Indiana, Illinois, and Michigan, with portions of Ohio to the east, Kentucky and Tennessee to the south, and Missouri, Iowa, and Nebraska to the west. The region within that circle, Steve White believes, is producing the majority of the marijuana grown in the United States. The highest-quality marijuana is cultivated indoors on the West Coast, but for sheer volume, no other area surpasses the U.S. heartland. White does not find this surprising. During the Second World War the U.S. government encouraged farmers throughout the Corn Belt to plant almost 300,000 acres of marijuana, in the hopes of replacing fiber supplies from Asia which had been cut off by the Japanese. The program, whose slogan was "Hemp for Victory," turned out to be a financial disaster and left marijuana growing wild throughout the region. Known as ditchweed, this marijuana now blankets tens of thousands of acres. For years it had a negligible delta-9-THC content, and was used mainly as filler by drug dealers, but there is evidence that the ditchweed may be cross-pollinating with the potent marijuana now cultivated outdoors. The same growing conditions and soil that are ideal for corn are also ideal for marijuana. Most local sheriff's departments employ only three to five officers, with more important things to do than hunt for marijuana. And over the past fifteen years there have been a lot of people with strong agricultural skills who have badly needed money—or have wanted more of it than almost any other job in the region could provide. A bushel of corn sells for roughly $2.50, a bushel of manicured marijuana for about $70,000. White thinks that marijuana is the largest cash crop in the United States, and if not the largest in Indiana, then right up there with corn and soybeans. Though he is proud of what his office has accomplished, White has no illusions: "There's more than we think."

During the 1960s and early 1970s nearly all the marijuana smoked in the United States was imported, mainly from Mexico, Colombia, and Jamaica. Domestic production rose in reaction to a number of events. The spraying of an herbicide, paraquat, over Mexican marijuana fields, begun in 1975, created uneasiness about that nation's product. Successful interdiction efforts by the U.S. Border Patrol and the Coast Guard made smuggling marijuana more difficult. And the tougher legal sanctions against trafficking led some foreign drug dealers to switch from marijuana, a bulk agricultural good with a strong smell, to cocaine, which is easier to conceal and brings a far higher return per pound. As marijuana prices rose, American growers responded to consumer demand. Mark A.R. Kleiman, an associate professor at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, finds this to be a rare instance in which protectionism actually worked. The anti-drug movement and the burgeoning American marijuana crop led the DEA to devote more of its resources to marijuana investigations. Kleiman estimates that by 1988 federal anti-marijuana efforts totaled approximately $970 million—about 20 to 25 percent of all federal drug-enforcement expenditures. By 1992 federal convictions for marijuana outnumbered those for heroin, crack cocaine, and LSD combined. The DEA's Cannabis Eradication/Suppression Program began in 1979 in two states, California and Hawaii; it now looks for marijuana-farming operations—called "grows" or "gardens" by members of the trade—in all fifty states.

No one knows exactly how much marijuana is cultivated in the United States. The numbers published by the government—or anyone else—are largely speculative. In 1992 the DEA eradicated 3,405 metric tons of cultivated marijuana in the United States, an amount the DEA says represents more than half the total domestic output. Critics believe that the DEA actually finds only 10 to 20 percent of the marijuana being grown in this country. With prices ranging from $500 a pound, for low-quality New Mexican marijuana, to more than $5,000 a pound for "boutique" strains like Northern Lights and Afghan Kush, it can be confidently stated that the black market for American marijuana, whatever the actual tonnage, is immense.

Growers are increasingly moving their crops indoors, using artificial light and hydroponics, to avoid theft, reduce the risk of detection, control the growing process, and profit from up to six harvests a year. Thirty mature plants can easily be grown in an area the size of a bathtub. I asked Steve White to list some of the places where he has discovered indoor grow operations. He laughed. "It would be tough for me to say places we haven't found them." Often a false wall hides a grow room in a house, or a house's foundation doesn't match its basement, which seems oddly smaller, or there are second stories with no stairwells, or crawl spaces are hidden beneath floors. Once White rummaged through a child's closet and found the entrance to a grow area behind the toys. Without need of a search warrant, the DEA employs thermal-imaging devices, mounted on helicopters and low-flying airplanes, to detect abnormal heat sources that may indicate the presence of an indoor growing operation—or a pottery kiln, or a Jacuzzi. What is found depends upon the skill of the technician. White has learned that one of the best ways to find an indoor grow area is with his nose: no matter how well-vented the operation, and despite electronic devices that can neutralize odors in the air, marijuana will exude a powerful scent. A few years ago indoor grows were often huge. A group of janitors in Anderson, Indiana, who had traveled to Israel to study hydroponics, were caught with 8,100 plants in a building with walls constructed a foot thick to thwart infrared detection. Nowadays growers rent storage units and apartments, using phony names and paying in cash, and build small grow operations at different locations, with timing devices and automatic controls. The authorities may find one or two—a loss anticipated in the grower's business plan—without being able to trace ownership.

White has smoked marijuana once, while working undercover, and did not enjoy the experience. He chain-smokes cigarettes, regrets it, and sees no need to add marijuana to the nation's list of legal drugs. "We've got tobacco, we've got alcohol," he said. "Jesus Christ, do we need another hallucinogenic, carcinogenic substance on the market?" What disturbs him most about marijuana is the phenomenal sums of money it funnels into an underground economy, and the great resulting potential for corruption among public officials. I asked whether a sense of futility ever creeps into his work, given the extent of cultivation in his state. "I'm not such a fool as to sit here and tell you that we're going to wipe out marijuana," he replied. But there is no doubt in his mind that the DEA exerts a deterrent effect. "Every time we have a helicopter go up on a mission," White said, "there's someone down below who sees it and thinks, 'Maybe I better not.'"

Ralph Weisheit, a professor of criminal justice at Illinois State University, does not know Steve White but has come to many of the same conclusions about marijuana cultivation in the Midwest. Weisheit first became interested in the subject eight years ago, when he saw, on the television news, an old Illinois farmer being arrested for cultivating marijuana. The farmer and his son never smoked marijuana; they grew it to save their farm from foreclosure. Weisheit was intrigued. With a grant from the research arm of the U.S. Justice Department, he conducted a two-year study of marijuana cultivation, interviewing law-enforcement officials in five states and dozens of Illinois growers who had been caught and convicted. The book based on that study, Domestic Marijuana: A Neglected Industry (1992), chronicles the rise of marijuana production in the United States and offers a fascinating portrait of the growers. Weisheit agrees that the majority of marijuana grown in America probably originates in the nine-state region described by Steve White. He also thinks that marijuana is the nation's largest cash crop, by a very wide margin.

Estimates of how many Americans grow marijuana range from one to three million, of which anywhere from 100,000 to 200,000 are commercial growers. Weisheit found that aside from being predominantly white and male, marijuana growers generally do not fit any common stereotypes. Some are pragmatists, growing the drug purely for the money; during the farm crisis of the 1980s many farmers in the Marijuana Belt started cultivating marijuana out of desperation. They found it not only easy money but also easy work. As one farmer told Weisheit, "You know, I spent most of my life trying to kill weeds, so trying to keep one alive was hardly a challenge." Other growers are hustlers by nature, classic American entrepreneurs; they might as well be selling time-shares in a vacation condominium. They try to build marijuana empires. The risks of the trade only add to its appeal. Other growers are less competitive, giving away marijuana to friends or selling it at slightly above cost, sharing agricultural techniques, comparing their crops the way neighbors might compare homegrown tomatoes. Marijuana growers are educated and uneducated, liberal and conservative. They are extremely secretive, worrying more about thieves than about the police. Few belong to NORML (the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) and few read High Times magazine or add their names to any list that might arouse suspicion. Indoor growing often attracts people who love gizmos. There are endless contraptions that can be added to a grow room, from computer-controlled watering systems to electric tables that distribute nutrients evenly by tilting back and forth. Some growers become connoisseurs, producing high-quality marijuana in small quantities, manipulating not only the level of delta-9-THC through cross-breeding but also the proportions of all the other cannabinoids to subtly—or not so subtly—affect the nature of the high. Weisheit met growers and law-enforcement officers alike who were extraordinarily passionate about marijuana, eager to discuss its arcane details for hours. He was surprised, after the publication of his book, by how little controversy it generated in either camp. His mother was disturbed, however, by one of its central implications: "She's very anti-drug," Weisheit says, "and her comment was, 'The thing I don't like about this book is that it makes these people seem so normal.'"

Late one night I met a commercial marijuana grower who introduced himself as "Dave." He has been growing marijuana on and off for more than a decade, beginning outdoors and graduating to a series of increasingly complex indoor grow systems. Understandably paranoid and suspicious, Dave is also quite proud of his work and regrets being unable to discuss it with friends. His grow operation had to be built surreptitiously, over a period of weeks, like a factory assembled by hand. It utilizes about $50,000 worth of high-tech hydroponic equipment. When the construction was complete, the whole thing looked so beautiful that Dave wanted to throw an opening-night party, but he decided that would not be a good idea. Though he always hated gardening and never passed a science class in his life, he now has a grasp of marijuana botany, plant biology, and advanced greenhouse-management techniques which only Special Agent White could fully appreciate. As he smoked some of his most recent harvest, Dave shared with me some of the pleasures, risks, rewards, and bizarre phenomena associated with his profession.

Hidden behind a fake wall, entered through a secret door, in a neighborhood where you would never, ever, expect to find it, Dave's operation is much larger than most. There are hundreds of marijuana plants in long rows, growing from cubes of rock wool, a soil-less medium spun from synthetic fibers, connected through an intricate system of white plastic pipes. Suspended above them are extremely bright high-pressure sodium lights, which require a surge of power from special ballasts to start up. On the ceiling is the bluish flame of a carbon-dioxide generator burning natural gas. The windows have been sealed and blacked out. The room is quite warm, the air thick and humid, the whole place filled with a pungent smell reminiscent of fresh hay. Like a greenhouse without glass, it feels very still and quiet, except for the sound of water rushing through narrow pipes.

When everything is running smoothly, Dave controls the elements necessary for his plants: air, light, heat, and water. In a closed chamber there is no wind; here a ventilation system provides it, circulating air rich in carbon dioxide. When outdoor temperatures drop too low, Dave uses the CO2 generator on the ceiling—in effect "fertilizing the air." Pumps and timers automatically water the plants, also delivering nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, which would normally be derived from soil. One of the critical factors in growing marijuana is the proportion of darkness to light. Sometimes Dave's high-pressure sodium lights burn eighteen hours a day, raising the temperature in the grow room to as high as 110 degrees. During the female plant's reproductive stage there must be long periods of total, uninterrupted darkness. As little as two footcandles of light can disrupt the delicate process by which delta-9-THC accumulates in the buds. Turning on a flashlight at the wrong moment, Dave says, is enough to ruin his plants.

He is truly a connoisseur, growing an expensive strain of marijuana from the northern Hindu Kush. As he describes how some outdoor growers stuff marijuana into plastic garbage bags while it is still wet, he grimaces, like a master vintner appalled by the improper handling of grapes. The buds are very fragile, he says: "You're trying to coax this mature flower to retain its essence—and then store it and seal it at that instant in time." His finished product is deep green and aromatic, like some rare, exotic spice.

Growing marijuana indoors requires much more work than cultivating it outdoors. There is also more potential for disaster. A splash of liquid on a hot light will cause it to explode. A broken pipe can flood the room with hundreds of gallons of water. A power outage shuts the whole system down. The nutrient solution, if improperly monitored, can quickly turn too acidic and, as Dave puts it, "give the plants a heart attack." More common, and yet somehow more surreal, are insect infestations that can harm valuable young plants. Dave has battled spider mites, greenhouse whiteflies, and aphids. Insecticides are not an option in an enclosed room, with a crop that will be smoked. Dave uses biological controls, unleashing hungry young predators upon unwanted bugs. Recently he released thousands of miniature wasps. This is insanity, he thought; but it worked. Inside a nearby refrigerator he always keeps 500 ladybug eggs, next to the soda, in case of an emergency. At the moment Dave is contending with gnats, who leave his plants alone but swarm and bite him as he walks about the grow room in the dark.

Someone At The Door

ON March 18, 1990, a pair of deputy sheriffs in Johnson County, Indiana, spotted a red Jeep being driven erratically and signaled for its driver to pull off the road. Behind the wheel they found Jerry Montgomery, obviously intoxicated; littering the truck were three empty vodka bottles, a five-gallon bucket full of marijuana, and a gray box containing more than $13,000 in cash. After obtaining a warrant, sheriffs searched Montgomery's house, finding more marijuana and a locked briefcase hidden under his bed. Deputy John Myers pried it open with a screwdriver. In the briefcase were receipts for farm equipment; documents mentioning R.P.Z. Investments, Claude Atkinson, and Ernest Montgomery; an option to buy a property owned by Martha Brummett; and a number of books suggesting that this arrest was the beginning, not the end, of a trail: Indoor Marijuana Horticulture, The Primo Plant, and How to Grow Marijuana Indoors Under Lights.

The investigation eventually led authorities to a 500-acre farm close to Solsberry, in Greene County, owned by Arno Zepp, of Investment Holdings, Inc. On August 22 federal, state, and local law-enforcement agents arrested Claude Atkinson, raided the farm, and, with the help of volunteers from the Indiana National Guard, destroyed 10,000 marijuana plants. Atkinson soon began to talk. In May of 1991 Ernest Montgomery was arrested at his Gosport cabin, where 7,000 marijuana seedlings sat in little pots, ready for planting. Early that same morning Mark Young was awakened by someone at the front door. Unlike his former business associates, Young was not growing anything. He and his girlfriend, Patricia, were in the process of moving to Florida. When he saw a man with a badge and a gun, Young had no idea what was happening, but assumed that it must have something to do with unpaid taxes.

More than a dozen law-enforcement officers surrounded the house. Their commander, a DEA agent, treated Young politely, allowing him to get dressed and agreeing not to handcuff him in front of the neighbors. At the station Young read his indictment. He was being charged, under federal law, not only for his role in distributing 700 pounds of marijuana but also for conspiring to manufacture all 12,500 marijuana plants grown on Martha Brummett's farm. Young was unaware of the punishment he might face until later that day. John Hollywood, a bail bondsman in Indianapolis, arrived in the afternoon to secure his release. But the government refused to set bail. Under Indiana's strict state law, the same charges would bring a maximum sentence of twenty-eight years—at most, fourteen years served in prison, and probably much less. But under federal law Young's two prior state felony convictions, one of them more than seventeen years old, classified him as a career drug offender. This arrest could prove his third strike. At the U.S. attorney's discretion, he faced a possible mandatory-minimum sentence of life imprisonment without possibility of parole.

This is the first part of a two-part article. Part Two, next month, will describe the disposition of the Young case and the perverse consequences of a legal regime that decrees mandatory-minimum sentences.

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A contributor to The Atlantic since 1994, Eric Schlosser is the author of Fast Food Nation, Reefer Madness, and Chew On This. He has also written for The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, and others.

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