Effects of Cannabis Eradication on Cultivation Trends and General Availability

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In the 1970’s marijuana bound for the American market was grown extensively in vast fields overseas and imported. By the 1980’s, much of the marijuana consumed in the United States was grown intensively, in small plots, and much of it was grown in the United States itself. The utilization of intensive agricultural techniques is as old as antiquity, and is one of the technologies which made civilization possible.

One factor encouraging this trend was the 1978 use in Mexico of the herbicide paraquat , and fear among consumers in the United States that the undetectable paraquat might poison them. On account of this fear, and diffusion of knowledge about cultivation, by 1978 domestic marijuana cultivation in the United States had become a problem.(44)

The DEA and marijuana growers are locked in an unending game of cat and mouse. At first marijuana was grown in a few states on private land. The government came in with paramilitary operations, and the cultivation diffused, all over the country. The paramilitary campaigns followed. The growers began cultivation of more potent plants to increase profitability per plant, and in smaller plots to avoid detection. Intensive cultivation began to replace extensive cultivation. When Congress enacted forfeiture statutes, growers moved to public land. As paramilitary eradication efforts increased, growers moved indoors. All commentators within and external to the government agree that the dominant trend in marijuana cultivation in response to the DEA’s program has been the promotion, decentralization and atomization of marijuana cultivation in the United States.

To repeat, In 1982 the goal of the eradication program strategy was:

“to deter both commercial sinsemilla or high grade marihuana cultivation and to suppress the proliferation of that cultivation in areas which have not yet developed a large or sophisticated growing or marketing capability.”(45)

This is reiterated again in 1985.

“The goals of the program are: to suppress cultivation in established areas, to deter cultivation in potential growing areas, and to minimize product availability through crop destruction.”(46)

Recent analysis by the DEA suggests that marijuana cultivation is well-rooted in American culture, and continuing to grow.

” “A large measure of the U.S. marijuana market will be captured by domestic growers, individual entrepreneurs and well-organized, multi-state cooperatives. Sinsemilla . . . will dominate the domestic market. Indoor and public land cultivation are the most common methods of cannabis production. Domestic cultivation may account for as much as 50% of the U.S. market by 1995.”(47)

The DEA realized as early as 1982 the extent of their influence on marijuana cultivation. They knew that eradication efforts encouraged growers to maximize their efforts and preserve their investment. Knowledge is a form of technology, and Sinsemilla was the technology that enabled growers to keep ahead of the DEA. “This resulted in marihuana of greater potency and higher value, thus providing a compelling incentive to the grower.”(48)

Hawaii, California, Oregon and Washington became the agricultural trendsetters for the marijuana boom.

“(In California, Washington and Oregon) cultivators strive for a high quality product in small remote plots to avoid detection. Other states average larger plots. These may become smaller in subsequent seasons with increased law enforcement activity . . . (in) Hawaii . . . the plants tend to be scattered through the jungle, rather than in defined plots.”(49)

As early as 1983 the DEA realized not only that marijuana cultivation was a nationwide problem, but that their efforts were having the same effect nationwide as they were having in the Pacific area.

” “Large seizures should not . . . be considered a trend involving the plot size of domestic cultivation. To the contrary, a definite trend involving the shift towards smaller cultivated plots was again noted during 1983. . . . This shift is viewed as a further attempt to deter aerial detection as eradication pressures increase.”(50)

Also in 1983, the DEA realized that eventually growers would go so far to escape detection as to move indoors. “Further increases in the utilization of greenhouses are anticipated as producers seek new means to deter detection.”(51)

Indoor marijuana cultivation had other advantages than security. Indoor cultivation can decrease the time required to produce flowering tops for market.

“In a hydroponic operation cannabis seedlings are transplanted into plastic pipes through which a solution of water and fertilizer flows. The plants are nourished by the solution and are subjected to artificial lighting 24 hours a day thereby maturing into eight to ten foot plants in less time than conventional open field operations.”(52)

These decentralizing trends toward smaller plot size and indoor cultivation continued noticeably through 1984 and 1985.

“In 1984, the median plot size was computed to be 128 plants per plot. This shows a continuing trend toward smaller cultivated plots.(53)

“Indoor growing operations accounted for an increased number of sightings and destructions in 22 states in 1984. Standard greenhouses, as well as converted residences, barns, basements, and attics were encountered.”(54)

By 1985 the median plot size had dropped to 100 plants per plot, and indoor sightings increased in 26 states.(55)

Before Congress established the Office of National Drug Control Policy, the Reagan Administration coordinated drug policy through the National Drug Enforcement Policy Board (NDEPB). Their 1984/85 report indicates awareness of another aspect of focusing on marijuana interdiction and eradication.

“The continuous, concerted effort to attack marijuana smuggling, a key element of the drug smuggling problem, has had considerable impact. Decreases in the amounts of marijuana seized and other indications show that interdiction efforts have made it more difficult for the marijuana smuggler to conduct business.”(56)

By effectively bottling up and diminishing the competition from the Colombian marijuana crop in 1984, the government further contributed to a bull market for domestically grown marijuana. Unfortunately, many of the international smugglers were given market incentives to switch from marijuana to cocaine. “Compared with marijuana, the high value, low volume nature of cocaine often makes interdiction difficult.”(57)

Another effect of eradication efforts that was apparent by the mid 1980’s was that the DEA programs were removing the amateurs and casual growers from the market, leaving it to more hard-core and/or experienced elements.

The NDEPB ordered a staff report on the Cannabis Problem in 1986. One of the problems they reported was that after several years of eradication and suppression activity, the market provided “a stronger product at a lower price per milligram of THC”.(58)

The inevitable trend toward indoor cultivation was confirmed.

“Although the extent of indoor cultivation is not known, the technical advantages, combined with continuing law enforcement pressure on outdoor plots, appear to have accelerated the trend toward indoor growing.”(59)

“The trend toward indoor growing appears to be gathering momentum.”(60)

The DEA has always tried to portray marijuana growers as violent and dangerous, often conjuring images of extensive booby-traps and/or the classic image of the moonshiner protecting his still with a shotgun. However the NDEPB observed otherwise:

“violence . . .directly conflicts with most growers’ political agenda of building popular support for legalizing the cultivation and consumption of marijuana.”(61)

The major trend is capitalization, attracted by the high price/crop removal/protectionist policies of the federal government. Fortunately this came from urban capitalists rather than organized crime.

“A convicted grower interviewed by NDEPB staff reported that the biggest change in the last five years has been the influx of urban money into rural cultivation operations. . . there appears to be little or no traditional organized crime (La Cosa Nostra) in domestic cannabis production.”(62)

Another trend acknowledged by the NDEPB was that the Americans were beginning to make a strong dent in the competition’s share of the American market. “In an effort to reverse this trend, foreign growers appear to have made a decision to upgrade the quality of their product.”(63) In 1989 the National Narcotics Intelligence Consumers Committee (NNICC) increased their estimate of the amount of marijuana grown in Mexico nearly nine-fold on account of “improved estimation methodologies and a review of cultivation areas that had not been included in previous years.”(64) In other words, marijuana cultivation was booming in Mexico between 1985 and 1989.

The NDEPB report devoted considerable attention to describing who these domestic growers are. They distinguish between commercial and personal use growers, with each category having amateurs, journeyman, and horticulturalists.(65) The NDEPB cites an estimate derived at by the DEA, the IRS, and the GAO estimating that as of 1985 the country had 90 – 150,000 commercial marijuana growers, and that personal use growers probably exceed one million.(66)

The result of the various trends instigated by the eradication program was a very decentralized, well capitalized and diffuse marijuana production capability to meet demand for high quality, domestically grown marijuana. According to the NDEPB:

“The best indication of how these basic needs (to avoid detection and produce a high quality product) will be met are the scope and management structure of the illegal operation. Small plots generally need little more than a network of friends for advice and distribution. In many areas, friendship networks have become formalized as cooperatives. Labor, costs, profits and, in some cases, losses are shared. In areas of extensive eradication efforts, losses by individual growers are absorbed partially by these organizations. Nearly two/thirds of the growers are “small-time independents.”(67)

In perhaps the most succinct description of why eradication efforts are not successful, the NDEPB observes that: “commercial growers are well-motivated to adapt to changes in tactics.(68)

The DEA began to comment extensively on this point in 1987. They report on the still continuing trend of decreasing plot size, and cite a magazine popular with growers, Sinsemilla Tips, to the extent that this change of tactics has preserved harvestable crops for many growers.(69)

Other efforts to avoid detection were described.

“The employment and sophistication of camouflage techniques to avoid detection were again noted in almost all states surveyed. Camouflage techniques ranged from the standard intercropping of cannabis plants among existing vegetation to such unique practices as hoisting potted plants up to the center of trees in what are termed “tree plots.”(70)

By 1989 the DEA had changed its tune. Ignoring their own role in the diffusion of marijuana cultivation in the United States, the DEA put a new spin on the issue. At this point, technological developments had enabled the U.S. to become a major source of marijuana, and the indoor marijuana cultivation becomes portrayed as the symbolic root of the problem.

For example, here is how the DEA describes the changes in the marijuana market during the period described above:

“Prior to the late 1970’s, domestic cultivated marijuana was considered inferior to Mexican or Colombian grown marijuana . . . U.S. growers experimented with seeds from various countries and improved horticultural techniques which resulted in the development of high grade domestic marijuana. The most significant discovery . . .produced a stronger marijuana known as “sinsemilla.”(71)

The emerging party-line is reflected in these comments:

“During 1987, indoor cannabis cultivation emerged as a significant and increasing problem. During 1988, DEA developed . . . “Operation Green Merchant” to address covert indoor cannabis cultivation.”(72)

“The trend for the last several years is the increased seizure of indoor operations.”(73)

“DEA proudly reports a 65 percent reduction in marijuana cultivation in Colombia in 1989. . . due to this increase, the United States has emerged as the second leading producer of marijuana in the world behind Mexico.”(74)

“An estimated 25 percent of the marijuana consumed in the United States is produced domestically. Indoor growing of cannabis is escalating both in the number of operations and in the quantity and quality of plants cultivated.”(75)

By 1990 the DEA was implying that outdoor marijuana cultivation was under control, and that now all the action was going after indoor grow rooms. Once again indoor cultivation is held up as the dominant trend.

“High yielding, potent, hydroponic cultivations are becoming very popular among illicit entrepreneurs because the profit margin is lucrative. Sinsemilla buds sells for up to $3000 per pound. One hundred marijuana plants can produce a profit of over $250,000 per harvest. Many of these plants yield several crops a year. Modern cultivation methods produce a potent plant which averages 8 percent tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) as compared to 1-2 percent in the 1970’s. The THC content of some sinsemilla plants is as high as 19 percent.”(76)

The 1990 DEA report also contains the frank acknowledgment that marijuana’s staying power is world-wide. “Worldwide consumption will steadily increase causing a global upswing of cannabis production. Therefore, foreign-source threats cannot be ignored.”(77)

By 1990, the program to eradicate and suppress marijuana cultivation had acquired law enforcement powers and capability unprecedented in the history of the United States, which will be reviewed below. Despite this accumulation of power, the DEA, by this time, was owing up to the realization that marijuana would be a fact of life in the United States for a long time to come. As cited earlier, the DEA was not forecasting victory in this war anytime soon.

“A large measure of the U.S. marijuana market will be captured by domestic growers, individual entrepreneurs and well-organized, multi-state cooperatives. Sinsemilla . . . will dominate the domestic market. Indoor and public land cultivation are the most common methods of cannabis production. Domestic cultivation may account for as much as 50% of the U.S. market by 1995.”(78)

In an echo of the observed trend to smaller plots in the mid 1980’s, the 1991 DEA report observes that: “The successful crackdown of DEA’s eradication efforts is driving cultivators to public lands, smaller plots, and indoor grow operations.”(79)

The reiterate their new priority of investigating indoor grow operations, showing great skill in capitalizing on a trend they helped to start.

“The decrease in availability of foreign source cannabis and the high demand for sinsemilla quality marijuana are indicators that indoor cultivation of cannabis in the preferred method. Statistics for the past three years show that indoor marijuana seizures have increased at a rate of 20% per year, a trend that is likely to continue.”(80)

Despite their 1982 goal of preventing the proliferation of marijuana cultivation, the DEA acknowledges in 1992 that “Domestically grown marijuana accounted for 10% of all marijuana in 1980 this has increased to 25% in 1992, with a production estimate of 4500 – 5300 metric tons. “(81) And, to no one’s surprise by now, the DEA also points out that “Mexican growers are adapting new growing methods to produce a higher potency drug to compete in the American market.”(82)

This comment from the 1992 report sums up the whole program.

“The program, includes all 50 states and is constantly evolving to counter the illegal drug growers efforts. We’re changing from the initial “Whack and Stack” operations, to sophisticated interstate cooperative criminal investigations. Marijuana farmers have become more and more resourceful and mobile, and so have we.”(83)

The cannabis eradication/suppression program represents lifetime employment for agents of the Drug Enforcement Administration and other law enforcement officials.