Governor's Task Force eradicates marijuana in East Tennessee

Governor's Task Force eradicates marijuana in East Tennessee

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Members of the Governor's Task Force are searching for marijuana plants from above. Members of the Governor's Task Force are searching for marijuana plants from above.

By STEPHANIE BEECKEN
6 News Reporter

KNOXVILLE (WATE) - You may have seen National Guard and THP choppers circling in the skies recently. That's because members of the Governor's Task Force are searching for marijuana plants from above. Tennessee is consistently ranked third in the country for the highest number of marijuana plants seized.

Helicopters from the Tennessee Highway Patrol and the National Guard take to the skies; the mission is to find marijuana plants. LaFollette Police Chief Jim Jeffries is assisting the Governor's Task Force on Marijuana Eradication. The group is comprised of several Tennessee law enforcement agencies.

"THP, Alcoholic Beverage Commission, National Guard counter drug unit work every year to eradicate marijuana which is a gateway drug," said Chief Jeffries.

For several months each year, 12 law enforcement officials come together to search different areas of the state for marijuana plants. Currently, the group is focused on East Tennessee.

The identities of many of those involved cannot be revealed because they also work undercover, but the task forces team leader says East Tennessee is popular place to plant marijuana.

"A lot of time people put it on private land, TVA, around lakes, US Forestry property," said a special agent with the task force.

Most of the state's marijuana growth is found in East Tennessee. The director of the task force says the soil is ideal to grow marijuana with higher levels of the chemical tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. The chemical is what gives marijuana its analgesic properties. The mountainous terrain also attracts growers because it's easier to hide the plants.

The task force formed in 1983. Each year, the eradication efforts prevent millions of dollars worth of marijuana from hitting the streets.

"Anytime we work cases you start with marijuana, then it goes to the pills, then the meth labs. It leads to other things and if we can catch it on the front end before it hits the streets then that makes our job a lot easier," said one of the agents on the task force.

According to the task force director, a fully grown marijuana plant can produce around a pound of marijuana. At street value, the marijuana is worth around $1,000. In 2011, the Governor's Task Force seized more than 600 thousand marijuana plants in Tennessee. The director of the task force says the plants were worth $600 million. Last year, the task force seized almost 150 thousand plants valued at $150 million. This year, searching two days around East Tennessee, around 650 marijuana plants were eradicated. Officials believe the program is working.

"People aren't growing marijuana like they used to and I think that's because of the program. We are out here working year after year and people don't want to take that chance of coming out here and getting caught," said a special agent with the task force.

As task force members spot marijuana patches from the sky, they notify members on the ground. However, entering the marijuana patches can be dangerous. Growers often set booby-traps.

"We take our time going in our here run into things such as nail boards, animal traps, fix hooks," said a special agent with the task force.

Despite the dangers, officials believe marijuana eradication is needed to help reduce crime and keep drugs off the streets. Jeffries says the task force has made a positive impact in Campbell County.

"It's been really successful in the past. Approximately four years ago, we found a Mexican cartel grow with over 150 thousand plants in it," said Jeffries.

The Governor's Task Force on Marijuana Eradication searches for the plants from May to October. Sometimes when the task force finds patches of marijuana, they discover other illegal activity. Monday in LaFollette, the task force found a meth lab.

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