The Marijuana Belt: Part 1

Murray, KY – The day after Thanksgiving 2007, Kentucky resident Luke Short and a friend decided to drive out to the middle of nowhere, relax and share a joint. They smoked about half a joint between them before heading back. That's when they hit a road block. Short thought it was the scene of a car accident.

"A police officer with a flash light was waving me towards him and I thought he was just waving me on through," said Short. "So I slowed down and I was going by him a little bit and then he started yelling at me to stop. So I stopped. He told me to roll the window down and I did. And of course he smelled marijuana in my car."

The officer asked Short whether he had been smoking and Short said yes. The police also found a gram of pot in the car. Short pleaded guilty in court and was sentenced to a week in jail, a year of DUI counseling and, due to some previous charges, his license was also suspended for a year.

First District Commonwealth's Attorney Mike Stacy says marijuana charges make up between five and fifteen percent of the cases his office prosecutes in the Ballard, Fulton, Hickman and Carlisle County area. Those are only felony cases; the misdemeanors go through lower courts.

Stacy has seen marijuana prosecution change in his area. He says several years ago, when he served as Ballard county attorney, the penalty for marijuana possession was a thirty day suspended sentence and a fine of around $200.

"But it just got to where we had too much repeat business," says Stacy. "And so we upped it to 180, 10 days to serve, and a $500 fine, and all of a sudden we didn't have any repeat business, but we still had business."

Stacy says most of the counties in the region require at least some jail time, a measure he sees as a strong deterrent. Most states charge marijuana possession as misdemeanors. In Kentucky, the penalty is higher for those trafficking or growing marijuana. Residents found possessing more than eight ounces of the drug or growing five or more plants face felony prosecution.

"Even though people know we're going to be out there every year looking for this illegal crop of marijuana, people will continue to put it out," says Kentucky State Police Lieutenant Brent White. "They'll continue to put it out in and around their residences or their property, and it doesn't deter some people."

White is the marijuana eradication coordinator for KSP's District 1. He handles operations in the state's eleven western-most counties.

White says his officers start looking for marijuana growers in April or May, with the season continuing through September or October. He says many people think the drug war isn't cost effective, but that isn't the case with marijuana. For example, in 2007, District 1 KSP spent $11,250 on marijuana eradication.

"When you put $11,250 as opposed to the value of the seized illegal substance at $3.6 million, that's a very good return on your investment," says White.

Nearly all those funds come from federal grants, money allocated to Kentucky because the state has such a high cannabis crop production, according to White.

But what does the KSP do with the thousands of marijuana plants they seize?

"They're sprayed with diesel fuel and they are soaked in that diesel fuel and they are allowed to dry in the sun in a secure lot that is maintained by the state police and then within the subsequent day or two they are burned by fire," says White.

He believes the suppression efforts are working. Last year, police found more cannabis plots, but fewer plants per plot.

"The illegal cultivator will at times because they feel pressure from law enforcement will typically utilize smaller plot numbers to evade detection," says White.

This means the heat is on for marijuana growers in Kentucky. With so much emphasis on this drug, growers are trying to hide their crop by moving it inside or utilizing isolated public lands. White knows each year some will slip by.

"The old marijuana growers' motto in Kentucky is you put three plots out," he says. "You put a plot out for the police to find, you put a plot out for the thieves to steal, and you put a plot out that you hopefully harvest."

Despite effective suppression efforts, lawyers and police officers can only change behavior, not beliefs.

Luke Short says his drug conviction has had a significant effect on his life. Short has a bachelor's degree in English and had hoped to use that to teach, but is finding that nearly impossible now. His local school board called recently offering training for substitute teaching, but when he told them about his drug charge, they backed off.

"I ended up getting a call from the school board lawyer and he said it wasn't in the best interest of the county to employ me in any school-related activities," says Short. "So that arrest really stopped me from being able to do what I wanted to do with my college education."

However, the trouble hasn't changed his thoughts on pot. Short says in the time he smoked, he encountered many other people who used marijuana.

"To see that contrasted against people that are drunk, something that's legal you can go to the store and buy--it's crazy!" he says. "People who are drunk have a hard time standing up and going to the door, whereas people who smoke get up fine, go to the car and drive with no problems."

With recent developments in the state legislature, those on the legal end worry more people will start to feel as Short does. Commonwealth's Attorney Mike Stacy says if Kentucky adopts a plan to keep jail costs down by letting non-violent offenders off without jail time, the number of people using marijuana will shoot up.

"They'll be more liberal with their use," says Stacy. "If there's no penalty for it whatsoever, what's the problem?"

The Kentucky Supreme Court is testing the plan's effect in select counties. If the measure spreads statewide, police officers and lawyers worry the work they've done to suppress marijuana will go up in smoke.