• Marijuana eradication wanes as funds dry up
    By
     | September 28,2013
     
    PROVIDED PHOTO

    These plants, seized in Winhall last year, were discovered by officers with the Vermont State Police’s Marijuana Eradication Response Team who were conducting a reconnaissance mission by helicopter. Funding cuts to the program have resulted in fewer such seizures in Vermont.

    MONTPELIER — Funding for Vermont’s “cannabis eradication” program has hit an all-time low, and the number of domestically grown marijuana plants being uprooted annually by law enforcement officers has dropped as a result.

    When it comes to narcotics interdiction, however, Commissioner of Public Safety Keith Flynn said resources are better spent fighting an opiate trade that, unlike marijuana, fuels ancillary quality-of-life crimes committed by addicts seeking cash for drugs.

    “Very frankly, we want to make sure that we are utilizing our law enforcement resources in Vermont in the best way possible,” Flynn said. “And when we look at heroin and opiates and other drugs causing an increase in break-ins and burglaries and drug store robberies, that becomes the emphasis for us.”

    The so-called “Domestic Cannabis Eradication Program,” launched nationwide by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration in 1985, manifests each autumn in the form of Air Guard helicopters thumping over the expanses on their weed-spotting missions.

    But the federal money that funds the eradication efforts of Vermont State Police, who are provided coordinates of grow operations by aerial spotters, has begun to dry up. For 2012 and 2013, according to Flynn, the budget, which goes largely to overtime pay for the extra hours put in by officers to conduct the missions, fell to $25,000 a year. That’s down from $34,000 in 2011, and represents a steady decline from 15 years ago, when Vermont had $60,000 to support eradication efforts.

    According to DEA statistics, eradication numbers appear to have suffered as a result. A program that resulted in the destruction of 6,400 outdoor and indoor plants in 1998 managed to cull about 4,000 plants in 2010 and only 2,020 in 2011. Last year’s eradication efforts, the most poorly funded yet, saw fewer than 1,500 plants destroyed, according to the DEA.

    Eradication-related arrests are also down. In 2002, police made 100 arrests related to the discovery of outdoor and indoor growing operations. By 2010, the number had fallen to 49; in 2011, state police recorded only 31 eradication-related arrests; and last year, they arrested only 14 people in the course of their cannabis eradication work.

    Flynn said his 327-officer agency is focusing its limited eradication resources on the highest-yield cannabis plots.

    Gov. Peter Shumlin earlier this year signed into law legislation that decriminalized small amounts of marijuana, and the second-term Democrat has indicated that it’s only a matter of time before he’ll push for outright legalization.

    “We’re not flying over looking for a single plant growing in somebody’s back yard — I think that’s probably the best way to put it. We’re looking for grow operations that appear to be more on the commercial side,” Flynn said. “I’m more concerned about a large quantity than I am for an amount the Legislature said should be decriminalized.”

    peter.hirschfeld

    @rutlandherald.com

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