Pot seized on Roan Mountain

By Julie Fann

On Roan Mountain, the amount of marijuana foliage is becoming directly proportional to the number of rhododendron blossoms.
Governor's Drug Task Force and Carter County Sheriff's Department officials seized 550 marijuana plants Tuesday afternoon from two properties in the Roan Mountain area. According to Sheriff John Henson, the plants are valued at over $500,000.
   "We have seized probably several hundred thousands of dollars worth of marijuana. The Governor's Task Force estimated over half-a-million dollars," Henson said. "It's under investigation, and arrests are pending at this time."
   Drug Task Force agents and CCSD deputies spent most of the day Tuesday combing Carter County aboard a helicopter as part of a routine seasonal search conducted by the DTF annually from June through September or October. Henson said using a helicopter makes hunting pot much easier.
   "You can see it so much better from up in the air than you can on the ground. You can walk all day and maybe find a dozen plants. You can fly with a helicopter and find thousands of them if it's there because you're looking at a wider area," said Henson.
   The CCSD isn't sure how long it will be before arrests are made and charges placed because of the amount of time it can take to gather evidence connecting property owners to the marijuana that is on their land.
   "You've gotta' tie something back to it and show that it was their marijuana. You've gotta' have evidence. You can't just go along and say, well, they own the property, I'm going to charge them," Henson said.
   "It was on private property, and we know who owns the property. Somebody else could have put it there," he said.
   The DTF contacts Henson five to 10 days in advance before they arrive to do a marijuana search so he can prepare his officers. The DTF spends two or three days with each county in the state hunting for pot.
   "In my opinion, we've not been finding near as much marijuana as we used to find. They (pot growers) hide it better; they don't keep as much in one place. They scatter it out. They're getting better educated," said Henson.
   When officers found the marijuana, they proceeded to cut it down with a hatchet. Due to the size of the stalks on the plants, it is nearly impossible to pull up marijuana by the roots, Henson said.
   The plants are then turned over to Governor's Drug Task Force officials who destroy the plants, according to Eddie Baldwin, Marijuana Drug Task Force Supervisor.
   "We usually get anywhere from three hundred thousand (300,000) to five hundred thousand (500,000) plants statewide. We destroy the plants," he said. "We haven't found very much in this area of the state, but in other areas, we have found quite a bit."
   Those arrested for manufacturing marijuana can be charged with a felony and wind up in criminal court but are usually fined, according to Henson.
   "They could get up to as much as three to five years. You're looking at a $10,000 to $15,000 fine, and these people (DTF officials) can go federal if they want to. They are federal agents," he said.