THE SAGINAW NEWS
Police say the best way to find pot plants growing outside is to get high first -- as in altitude.
So far this year, a multicounty task force found 500 plants through airborne surveillance. Last year, it grabbed 600, and would have snatched more if not for assignments to take to the air during President Bush's campaign stops.
"The marijuana stands out from the air, and you can actually tell the difference from the other foliage," says State Police Lt. Mel Mathews, commander of the Bay Area Narcotics Enforcement Team.
Mathews, who has spent dozens of hours in helicopters and airplanes scanning terrain during pot flybys, says the decline in recent years in confiscated "grows" -- a term for live-plant busts -- actually is good news.
BAYANET spied 1,900, 3,000 and 5,000 plants in the years 2001 to 2003, respectively, but in the presidential election year of 2004 had to redeploy its helicopters for Bush's security detail.
"We kept being diverted to cover the president," he said of Bush's two Saginaw visits last year. "I don't know how many days we weren't able to do it."
Even so, Mathews believes the overhead threat to horticulturalists specializing in pot has reduced crops raised outdoors in recent years. Just look at this year's even skimpier tally, he said.
Yet the aerial busts bring the biggest cash-value hauls for Mathews' agency, which covers Saginaw, Bay, Midland, Clare, Gladwin and Isabella counties, and aids the Saginaw County Sheriff's Department's pot eradication efforts too.
A pot plant translates into about $1,000 in street value, meaning the $600,000 from flybys last year made up more than half the $1.1 million worth of all drugs BAYANET seized in 2004.
Mathews, of course, does not announce his helicopter and airplane schedules. But they typically fly every day for a week during June, July, August or September, he said.
To kill the pot plants and catch their cultivators, the pilot and a pot spotter team up to lead police officers on the ground to the marijuana target.
Once face to face with a hulking 12-foot pot "tree" whose illicit gardener had abandoned it to the wild, Mathews said his officers "nine times out of 10" dig up the plant and its roots.
"I said, 'Oh, my goodness,' " Mathews recalled of one recent towering pot shrubbery. "That one took some time getting out."
Why is getting high so effective for getting reefer?
Scanning terrain that hosts the nefarious flora, such as cornfields, wooded areas, ditch lines, swamps and rivers, is seamless when you're in a plane or chopper.
Plus, pot jumps out because of its unusual shade of green, Mathews said. "It has a distinct color different than the foliage that surrounds it," he said.
What do you reckon these guys are getting paid an hour to operate shovels for no apparent reason? Why are they digging up pot plants?
It's not as if the plant will grow back from the roots next year. It's an annual plant, not a perennial.
Although it does seem to be a perennial favorite.