|Chasing Smoke - Hawaii's 24 Year War on Pot|
Posted by FoM on April 02, 2000 at 08:27:18 PT|
Narration by Advertiser Staff Writer Dan Nakaso
Source: Honolulu Advertiser
Hawaii has been waging war on marijuana for 24 years at a cost no one can estimate and with a result no one can predict. The only certainty is that marijuana -- pakalolo -- remains Hawaii's most enduring illegal cash crop. And as the war enters its fourth decade, some are questioning what it has accomplished and whether it should continue.
Smarter police tactics force Hawaii pakalolo growers to streamline and camouflage operations.
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To be sure, Operation Green Harvest succeeded in driving some big operators out of business and reversing a perception of lawlessness, especially on the Big Island. But acres of land once filled with marijuana plants the size of Christmas trees merely gave way to countless plots of tiny plants, tended by small-time dealers who learned the hard way how to evade drug enforcement helicopters.
Growers lost homes, went to jail, died in drug disputes. Police officers arrested friends and family and were targeted by crude booby traps. Caught in the middle were angry noncombatants, people in remote places such as the Puna District who grew weary of police helicopters ruining their peace.
Even as police hacked and buried millions of plants, marijuana wove itself into the fabric of life in the Islands. Pakalolo continues to fuel an underground economy where it is the currency for everything from car repairs to baby-sitting.
No one knows how much the war on marijuana has cost, the manpower consumed, the volume of plants seized or the number of dealers put out of business.
Some Hawaii law enforcement officials said they probably have the information but don’t have the personnel to compile it. Others said it would be impossible to comply with The Advertiser’s request for an overall estimate of the costs because agencies keep records differently.
The data that various agencies can provide hint at the enormous size of the marijuana industry.
In 1998, Hawaii’s marijuana campaign seized 772,401 plants, more than any other state’s marijuana program. In 1997, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws estimated that Hawaii’s pakalolo industry produced 250,000 pounds, ranking it fifth in the country, behind California, Tennessee, Kentucky and Florida.
Tom Kelly, assistant special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Honolulu district office, said it’s impossible to estimate the size of Hawaii’s marijuana industry. He won’t guess how much comes in and how much is shipped out each year by plane, boat and mail.
“There’s no way for me to know out of 100,000-plus plants that are eradicated, how many more weren’t eradicated, and how many went to Guam or the Philippines or California,” Kelly said. “If we knew where they were going there, we’d have stopped them.”
A review by the DEA’s audit division concluded in 1995 that: “Presently, analysis of the effectiveness of marijuana eradication efforts in Hawaii County — or any other jurisdiction — is hindered by a lack of reliable data about the extent of illicit cultivation.”
The alternative — putting an end to the marijuana campaign — is unthinkable to Carvalho and other law enforcement officials.
Allowing marijuana growers to operate unchecked would send the Big Island back to the dark days of the 1970s, he said, when hunters and hikers were confronted by growers carrying shotguns and rifles. Drug dealers killed one another. And utility company linemen were shot at — just because they had a view of marijuana fields.
“People say marijuana is a victimless crime,” Carvalho said. “We had homicides. A lot of people forget about that. Once we let up or slow down, it’s just a question of time when we’ll have a major problem again.”
Even today, a Big Island bulldozer operator who clears the old sugar cane fields tries to accommodate marijuana growers when he comes across their plants. He methodically grooms the area while leaving the marijuana alone. It’s his way of letting the growers know that someone is in the area without hurting their business.
Still, he can’t avoid trouble. Eight of his bulldozer engines have been destroyed when people poured sand into the engines.
“You fire it up and aloha, it’s gone,” he said.
“I don’t want to get involved,” said the operator, who did not want his name used out of fear of retaliation from growers. “Guaranteed, I don’t want problems. I don’t know why they do this.”
Judith Mura’s problem isn’t with the growers. It’s with the campaign to stop them.
The eradication helicopters have flown so low over Mura’s house in Puna Palisades that they rattle the roof and walls, she said. The noise sometimes gives Mura’s 5-year-old daughter, Jordan, nightmares.
“They call it a war on drugs,” Mura said, as Jordan bounced on a trampoline in their front yard. “This is a war on our own people. How can the United States of America declare war on its own citizens?”
“No one really knew what was going on and they were afraid that if word got out there would be armed confrontations with the police,” said Dale Fergerstrom. He was part of the original operation as a foot patrolman and now is a Big Island police captain.
“At the last minute, they would say, ‘You, you, and you — report to a certain area for marijuana eradication.’ They dragged me through the bushes, hiking for miles following a helicopter.”
As millions of dollars in federal drug enforcement money began to flow into Hawaii, the war on marijuana spread to Kauai, Maui and Oahu. Eventually it included helicopters from private companies, police, the DEA and National Guard. Personnel came from four island police departments, the DEA, the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, Army, Coast Guard, Postal Service, National Park Service, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the Internal Revenue Service.
Operation Green Harvest became Operation Wipeout. Today, it is officially the Counter Cannabis Field Operation, a local version of the federal Domestic Cannabis Eradication/Suppression Program.
But the name Green Harvest stuck.
Its peak came in the 1980s when authorities routinely pulled more than 1 million plants out of the Big Island each year.
In a study released in 1989, Attorney General Warren Price worried that victories over the pakalolo industry would create a vacuum that harder drugs could fill. He said there was evidence that Mainland gangs had moved into Hawaii’s drug industry. And he was bothered by how the war on marijuana was progressing.
“The only problem with the eradication effort in Hawaii is that it is costing over $1 million per year, and it is not apparently reducing, much less eliminating, the marijuana industry in Hawaii, nor is there any evidence to suggest it is reducing local consumption,” Price wrote. “Despite the years of eradication efforts, the industry has flourished and grown, and widespread consumption continues.”
Today, Hawaii’s war on marijuana is fought with a fifth of the manpower of the early days, and plant seizures are down to about 300,000 each year.
From 1993 through 1997, the four Island police departments and the state Department of Land and Natural Resources received a total of $2.58 million for marijuana eradication from the DEA. Annual allocations ranged from $400,000 to $600,000.
But law enforcement officials don’t want the true costs to be known because fighting marijuana generates federal grants, said Donald M. Topping. He’s the former director of the Social Science Research Institute at the University of Hawaii and president of the Drug Policy Forum of Hawaii, which questions the wisdom of American drug policies.
Without an overall accounting, Topping said, the people of Hawaii cannot have an informed debate on whether to continue Green Harvest.
“Only a fool would say our current policies are having an effect,” Topping said. “Yet we continue to pursue them in the face of overwhelming evidence that they do not work.”
The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) has collected audits of anti-marijuana programs around the country for years. None of them makes a comprehensive, year-by-year assessment of whether the programs work, said Allen St. Pierre, NORML’s executive director.
In 1997, the DEA stopped publishing annual reports on its anti-marijuana campaign, St. Pierre said. NORML continues to file Freedom of Information Act requests for the data and now receives figures that are nearly unintelligible, he said.
“A lot of the information that was publicly disseminated ended,” he said. “It’s not easy to get data anymore.”
The Hawaii Army National Guard was one of the few agencies to provide The Advertiser with detailed information about its involvement in the Counter Cannabis Field Operation. The guard flew its Huey helicopters during the first Green Harvest missions and later used its Bell Kiowa OH-58s during the 1990s, according to spokesman Capt. Chuck Anthony.
According to its records, though, the Guard began flying missions only in fiscal year 1989, Anthony said.
“I know that can’t be right,” Anthony said. “I know we were in on the original Green Harvest.”
The picture becomes even cloudier because the National Guard does not separately account for marijuana eradication missions. The cost is somewhere in the $3.6 million the Guard spent in 1999 on drug seizure operations.
James White, now a researcher at the UH globalization research center, tried to add up the price of Hawaii’s marijuana war in 1995 for the statewide Substance Abuse Task Force. He filed unsuccessful Freedom of Information Act requests with the Justice Department and had no better luck with state and local authorities.
“There were several problems,” White said. “We were lied to quite a lot. The Neighbor Island police forces don’t necessarily cooperate. Even if they did cooperate, there was no consistency in how people broke the figures down. I was amazed that they had different fiscal years. So you were constantly comparing apples and oranges.
“I didn’t feel there was a great conspiracy going on,” White said. “I felt it was more incompetence and some minor deceptiveness. On the other hand, fairly substantial funds are being spent, and it’s unknown whether it’s being audited properly at all.”
The Maui Wowee, Kona Gold and Puna Butter smuggled out of the Islands has always been accorded a certain mystique in marijuana lore.
“The perception is that Hawaii continues to produce some of the most legendary, quality pot in the country,” said Steven Wishnia, senior editor at High Times Magazine, a 200,000-circulation magazine devoted to the marijuana culture.
No one disputes that Green Harvest cut into the industry. But it also drove up the price of pakalolo, from $25 an ounce in the 1970s to $400 today, and as much as $600 if it’s smuggled from the Big Island to Maui, Kauai or Oahu.
So an ounce of high-grade, Big Island-grown marijuana can be worth twice the price of gold. Under the shade of a banyan tree in Puna, a 27-year-old marijuana grower unscrewed the lid of a blue water jug, opened the brown paper bag inside and unleashed the smell of high-grade, Puna-grown pakalolo.
Even in the shadows, it was impossible not to see the look of self-satisfaction that spread across his gaunt, unlined face. The grower leaned back in his chair and admired the ounce of cannabis sativa laid out before him.
It was the result of cross-breeding small, quick-growing plants in pots he can move quickly to avoid detection. His guerrilla style represents the modern era in Hawaii’s war on marijuana.
“Today,” the grower said, “it’s duck-and-cover.”
The next day, nearly 20 miles away in Puna’s Hawaiian Paradise Park, Big Island vice detectives Burt Shimabukuro and Benton Bolos rappelled out of a Hughes 500 helicopter and into a grove of ohia trees to ruin some other grower’s day. In less than five minutes, Shimabukuro and Bolos had slid out of the helicopter, cut 110 2-foot pakalolo plants with their machetes, and flown off in search of more clandestine patches.
“In and out, just like that,” said Big Island vice Lt. Henry Tavares, who is in charge of marijuana eradication for the eastern half of Hawaii County.
As growers have spread smaller plants over miles of other peoples’ land, police have responded by traveling in three helicopters: one that spots marijuana and two that carry five officers each who remove the plants. Traveling lighter means they can move quicker and cover miles of terrain.
“We taught the growers our methods,” Tavares said. “Now we’re adapting, too.”
“The only thing I’ve seen eradication change is the price of marijuana, not the availability,” said Phil Geraci, a counselor at Hilo High School. “It’s been my experience that most people here don’t pay for it. It’s either traded or they grow their own or they rip it off from somebody.”
A 15-year-old sophomore from Hilo High School listed the beaches and hangouts where he sees marijuana every day — Four Mile Beach, Lanes, Containers.
But he said marijuana and other drugs have virtually disappeared from Hilo High because of a zero-tolerance policy that levies an automatic transfer to an alternative school for anyone caught with drugs or alcohol. That has left Hilo High an island of sobriety in a community where marijuana is rampant, Geraci said.
“Here in Hilo, there is a serious marijuana problem,” he said. “It has hurt families. It pulls people apart. It makes anyone who abuses it less of a person, and that affects every part of them, not only their families but their productivity with society.”
The Big Island Substance Abuse Council treated 464 clients from 1997 to 1998, 330 of them from the eastern side of the Big Island. Clients had various drug and alcohol problems, but marijuana was a consistent issue for 90 percent of them, said Wes Margheim, the organization’s coordinator of adult services.
Even when marijuana is the only drug present, it creates problems by killing motivation and ambition, Margheim said. The $400-an-ounce price on the Big Island also drains family incomes.
“It affects men and women both,” Margheim said. “There are arguments, neglect of children, lack of responsibility.”
Elyse Douglas was a 21-year-old Hilo Community College student and a marijuana smoker who was stoned most of the time. She still managed to own a modest house and was otherwise doing fine, said her father, Lorn Douglas, a custom chopstick maker from Kehena.
Elyse Douglas remembers when an ounce of pot went from $275 to $300. “If you wanted really good quality, I paid $600 one time,” she said.
There is considerable debate about whether the crackdown on marijuana created an opening for harder, cheaper and more dangerous drugs such as crystal methamphetamine, or “ice.”
Elyse Douglas believes her addictive personality would have led her to crack eventually. Her father maintains the price of pakalolo drove her to it.
“She just couldn’t afford pot anymore,” Lorn Douglas said. “So a friend said, ‘Try this.’ From that day, she went from a regular kid into a crack addict and an outlaw.”
The difference in drugs was as dramatic as it was dangerous, Elyse Douglas said.
“With marijuana, I was stoned all of the time, but with crack I was stealing, would hurt anyone, do anything to get my drugs,” she said. “My dad is my only parent, and I stole from him. I was hanging out with heavy, big-time drug dealers in very precarious, dangerous situations, stealing.”
One night, Douglas tracked his daughter to the home of a drug dealer, forced her into the car and drove her to the Hilo police station, where officers said they had been looking for her. Elyse Douglas went through drug treatment on the Big Island, spent 18 months in a California half-way house and now works as a traffic court clerk in Santa Barbara, Calif.
This year, at 28, she celebrates five years of sobriety.
Looking back at what his daughter went through, Douglas said: “I’m very proud of my daughter, and yes, I’d prefer she had stayed on marijuana. It’s a crime that marijuana’s against the law.”
Jonathan Adler is pushing the legalization of medical marijuana in his campaign for Big Island mayor. He grows marijuana around his home in Puna’s Hawaiian Paradise Park and was indicted last year on felony drug charges.
Adler says he has a prescription to smoke marijuana for his chronic asthma. He dreams of the day when he can offer pakalolo openly to ease patients’ suffering. He can’t wait to go to trial so he can argue his right to smoke and grow marijuana.
Each year on the Big Island, the County Council considers whether to accept federal marijuana eradication money. Each year, a parade of hemp advocates, medical marijuana practitioners and legalization proponents fills the council chamber.
Dissident council members are led by Curtis Tyler, a Republican, small businessman and former Navy lieutenant who has become an unlikely hero to the pro-marijuana forces. Tyler doesn’t support legalizing marijuana. He’s simply against what he calls misguided government policies.
A Big Island audit last year reviewed the $353,294 the county received in federal money for marijuana eradication in 1997-98. The money helped pay for 100 arrests for marijuana cultivation and the seizure of 331,109 plants.
But the audit didn’t answer Tyler’s more fundamental questions.
“Why are we doing this, and what are we accomplishing?” Tyler asked. “My assessment is we’re winning a lot of battles, but we’re not winning the war. My bigger question is: ‘What is the war we’re fighting?’ ”
If the goal is to win a war against marijuana, Tyler said, perhaps more money needs to go to prevention and treatment.
Otherwise, a law enforcement eradication program is “like putting a Band-Aid on a cancerous mole. This is indicative of so much of what government does. We address the symptoms and not the cure.”
Paula Helfrich, president of the Hawaii Island Economic Development Board, knows that marijuana continues to pump money into the Big Island economy. During the 1980s, it paid for new cars and trucks, founded businesses and bought everyday things, such as groceries.
But she doesn’t want to hear that marijuana is good for the Big Island. Its reputation as ground zero of a marijuana war hurts the island’s hopes of attracting new agriculture to replace the dead sugar industry, Helfrich said.
“Having the majority of the marijuana crop here has been the single biggest detriment to ... viable, legal, agricultural alternatives,” she said.
Coffee, papaya and forestry representatives have looked at investing in the Big Island, she said, but they don’t like the “perception that we’re the pot capital.”
“They’re either put off by the perception or the reality,” she said. “And the reality is that marijuana growers still sneak onto other peoples’ property and grow illegally.”
Chasing Smoke - Hawaii's 24 Year War on Pot
© Copyright 2000 The Honolulu Advertiser, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.
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Comment #2 posted by Alexandre Oeming on April 02, 2000 at 12:06:35 PT:|
>“We had homicides. A lot of people forget about that.
We also have laws that deal with homicide, as well as other nasty things like neglect, child abuse, assault and battery, rape ... you name it, we've got a law for it. Why the rest of the responsible drug users have to live in fear for their freedom b/c we don't like people that commit homicide or whatever is beyond me. Oh, that's right ... how silly of me ... there IS no such thing as a responsible drug user! They're all abusers! *shake of me head*
>Once we let up or slow down, it’s just a question of time when we’ll have a major problem again.”
Uh-huh. Why do you suppose, Mr. Einstein, sir, that people are driven to commit actions of violence against others in the black market trade of an extremely desirable commodity? Does anyone out there in ReaderLand think these idiots can figure it out all on their lonesomes or maybe they already do and they're just plain evil? Either way, the easy corollary to this is thus: how many licensed distributors of alcohol and tobacco are out there committing violence against their competitors? None?!? Why could that be, do you suppose?
Comment #1 posted by kaptinemo on April 02, 2000 at 09:54:24 PT:|
Ask the people who died at Waco, Ms. Mura. The whole Waco thing started over a phony report of a meth lab being on the premises. Ask the ghosts of Ismael Mena, Donald Scott, Esequiel Hernandez, and most recently the ghost of Mr. Dorismond. Unfortuantely, they can't answer you whether it was worth their lives. But you can bet there are Federal goons who believe it *is* worth a few innocent lives (routinely dismissed as 'collateral damage') in their holy crusade; as I overheard one sneeringly say years ago when the subject came up: "So we'll erect statues to 'em,