September/October 2009

Grass Roots

With millions of acres of anonymity the Adi­rondacks is a haven for small-time marijuana growers and a thruway for big-time dealers. A special report.

The route should be deserted: it’s a September Sunday, it’s obscenely early, John is traveling the backest of back roads. Still, he meets a pair of lights heading in the opposite direction. The car’s driver is probably lost in an early-morning haze, but John is taking no chances. He overshoots the turnoff and whips around for another pass. On the next go-round he spots a second set of headlights raking around a bend. Pulling sharply onto the path—it’s too primitive to be called a dirt road—he cuts his beams.

Seem paranoid? Not if you’re growing marijuana. John (not his real name) is in his 40s, married, has a kid and is well known in his small Adirondack community. He has a lot to lose if his name winds up in the police log.

So he takes precautions. A few hundred yards along the path John stops the truck and gets out to check the card from a motion-activated camera mounted to a tree. He loads the pictures into a laptop and clicks through: nothing, nothing, nothing, his truck. No poachers, no police. It’s getting light by the time he sets off into the brush. There’s no trail because he walks a different route each time he checks his plants, three to four times a season, to fertilize, prune and water, hauling buckets from a nearby pond.

After a circuitous trip around blowdown, over gullies and through swamp, he breaks into a clearing and heads to four pungent bushes, about three feet high. Their buds are small, still a couple of weeks from maturity, and they’re coated with sugary crystals of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which gives marijuana its psychoactive properties. The strong skunky smell, the buds sparkling in the early light—it’s enough to distract even the most casual user. But John is all business. The weather has been rainy so there’s no need to water, and it’s late in the season so there’s no need to fertilize. He just checks for insect and mold damage and moves on to the next patch.

When he’s finished his rounds, he pauses by his truck for a cigarette and is startled by a figure in the fog on a nearby ridge. A friend? A hiker? The police? He turns and lets out a rush of smoke. Just an adolescent bull moose giving him a good, hard stare before strolling back into the woods.

On another day, John has more time to talk. Sitting at his kitchen table he sifts through a stack of old photographs. He pulls out one showing a row of marijuana plants drying in a wide-open, sunshiny field. The buds turn brown when dried in the sun, he explains. (Brown weed is not considered as high quality as green, but there’s a faster turnover; drying inside takes longer but also keeps the buds fresher and more fragrant.) John says that not many people get away with drying out in the open anymore. The photograph is from his father’s collection—John is a second-generation Adirondack grower. He credits his dad, High Times magazine and Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) forestry classes for everything he knows about cultivation. Paul Smith’s College, with its botany and forestry programs, is also “no­torious for pumping out awesome growers,” he says.

Any temperate-climate pot farmer starts plants inside un­der artificial lights. In terms gardeners can re­late to, it would take most marijuana varieties six or seven months to mature from seed to bud-bearing adults—twice as long as it takes to grow an heirloom eggplant. For this reason, North Country growers often shorten the process by a couple of months, starting with leaf cuttings, also called clones, in­stead of seeds.

Why bother cultivating this frost-prone upland at all? A desire to avoid the organized illegal-drug economy, for one. Also, pride in producing a local, organic crop, not unlike the pride backyard gardeners and locavores take in putting their own food on the table. But there’s another incentive specific to the Adirondacks: acres and acres of anonymity. The park offers 4,000 square miles of water-rich, state-owned Forest Preserve, plus private tracts larger than an absentee owner could ever walk. Who’s to know how those shrubs with the fingery leaves got there? John prefers growing on private land over public. “You’re already breaking the law,” he reasons, “so trespassing isn’t really a problem.”

In the early 1990s the North Country led New York State in the amount of marijuana grown (at least in the amount police agencies could discover and quantify). That’s not necessarily the case anymore; central New York generated the most homegrown cannabis seized in 2008, State Police report. Still, do-it-yourselfers with horticultural skills persist in stitching small plots of pot throughout the Adirondack Park. “It’s like bootlegging,” one retired cop says. “It’s been going on for years.”

John grows about a pound a year, for personal use only, but tending even a small crop is an investment in time and money. In spring, once young plants reach a few inches tall, he moves them from propagation trays into red plastic Solo cups. When they get larger the clones will be transplanted into four-gallon buckets. They’re ready to be moved outside after the first full moon in June, when the risk of frost is slim.

John carts his camouflage-painted pots to three different spots, leaving four or five in each place in the hope that small groupings are less likely to be discovered. Choosing just the right site is a challenge. It has to be close to water and get lots of sun yet also be obscure to hikers and helicopters. John se­lects plants for low height and prunes their tops to keep them unobtrusive and bushy. Another Adirondack grower called Fred (also not his real name) does things a little differently. He transplants directly into the ground so the marijuana doesn’t need to be watered and checked as often. And he doesn’t top his plants. “I want them tall, usually five to six feet, to get as much as I can from them,” he says.

Once the plants are out in the world, that’s when John says he starts to “let the nerves chew.” It’s not just the police. Fred, who sells a small portion of his yield, estimates he’s lost $48,000 to theft since he started growing about 20 years ago. There’s also a good possibility a concerned citizen will stumble upon a cache and destroy it on principle. Then there are more mundane worries: Rainy summers can bring slugs or mold, turning buds to mush. Deer, rabbits and insects take their toll.

Between mid-September and early October, when the white hairs on the buds turn brown, it’s time to harvest. As with tomatoes, each variety has its own schedule; some thin-leafed sinsemillas are especially late-budding. John says he’s “had to shake the snow off” a few of those.

John smokes marijuana just about every day. “I have a boring job,” he explains. Fred used to raise about 27 plants, grossing approximately $5,400 a year. Last year he harvested 17 plants, from which he expected to reap a pound or so, selling a small amount for $200 to $240 an ounce. He tends several patches about a mile and a half into the wilderness: “A hard walk through swamps, prickers, everything—nasty stuff,” he says. He keeps track of the locations with a GPS unit.

In a parallel world members of North Country law enforcement agencies are using the same GPS units, seeking the same sunny breaks in the canopy and making their own harvest preparations this time of year. They speak the same language as Fred and John but their lives rarely intersect.

“Every late summer and early fall we get together with the aviation unit and discuss tips” from informants and aerial surveys, says State Police lieutenant Michael Tietz, head of the Community Narcotics Enforcement Team that covers the Capital District and much of the North Country. “When it gets close to harvest time we go out and eradicate.”

County drug task forces across the state reserve time on State Police helicopters to look for plants. Fred and John know that cannabis can resemble sumac from the air, and they use this similarity as part of their camouflage strategy. But some cops have an especially keen eye.

“Sumac [before it turns red] does look like marijuana a little bit. That might bring you back for a second look,” says Sergeant Tom Dowling, a State Police helicopter pilot based in Albany. But he’s learned to tell the difference: “Later in the season as the leaves start changing and [native plants] get a lot duller, marijuana really stands out. It’s like this bright emerald green.”

Dowling says he sees marijuana in “really remote places,” along power-line cuts, on state land, “not in huge clumps,” mixed with trees on the north edge of fields. “It’s not unusual anymore to see plants on bogs,” he says.

Every fall police and pot farmers play an escalating game of cat and mouse that neither side fully expects to win. Decades ago the growers’ trick was to hide a patch of marijuana in the middle of a cornfield; with the advent of regular aerial surveillance in the 1980s and 1990s they adapted by scattering their crop. Now when police fly over the Adirondacks they usually find loose groups of 10 to 20 plants belonging to someone they’ll never meet. In farming-oriented Washington County, at the southeastern edge of the park, police occasionally find larger clusters of a hundred or more.

One day last fall, though, Sergeant Dowling came across something that didn’t fit the pattern. He was flying over the Adirondacks from Albany en route to Keene to help search for a missing man. Dowling and a State Police crew had just passed over Irishtown, a little hamlet in the Essex County town of Minerva. They noticed some vibrant shrubbery along a winding bog stream and radioed the GPS location to officers on the ground. The helicopter continued north to assist in the search. Tietz and eight other police arrived that day to find and pull 1,987 marijuana plants along a mile of stream below Hayes Mountain.

To reach the site they drove north on Cheney Pond Road, an out-of-the-way spur through forest interrupted only by an abandoned bus, a couple of hunting trailers and a little cabin. At some hard-to-define point the road enters the Vanderwhacker Mountain Wild Forest and turns into a jeep/snow­mobile trail marked by shot-riddled yellow disks. Not far from the trail the bed of an intermittent stream enters a natural clearing. Blackberry canes, asters and goldenrod reach head height. The soil is dark, damp and uneven where the stream has left gravel washes and bare mud. The area seems to have it all: light, water, fertile soil and isolation.

Tietz notes that the growers had “spent some time.” Plants had been trimmed and staked and were low to the ground and bushy. Police found empty fertilizer bags. “It wasn’t growing wild,” he says.

His crew had to bushwhack to reach the most remote plants, and Dowling would return that afternoon with the Huey to land on a bog. He flew until dusk, carting three full loads of marijuana to a staging area in Irishtown. A week later Tietz and Dowling participated in a press conference at Albany International Airport, standing in front of the helicopter, bushy thatches of still-green plants piled on its skids.

Police estimate the street value of the plot very roughly at $1.4 million. It costs $800 an hour to keep a State Police chopper in the air. Tietz knows that people might question spending that much money to look for a drug some argue should be decriminalized, but he thinks it’s well spent. “Anything we can do be­fore it gets to the street is going to have a positive impact,” he says.

Investigators have identified “people of interest,” Tietz says, but they haven’t arrested anyone in direct connection with the Irishtown grow. Nor do they expect to. “In order for us to catch somebody there, the man-hours are pretty significant,” Tietz explains. “We’d have to put somebody in the woods.” Even if an officer had staked out the bog, the heaviest charge police could make is illegally growing marijuana without a permit, a misdemeanor under public health law. “We have more of a benefit when we just take the stuff,” he says.

As with any cash-crop agriculture, tech­nology offers the allure of quality control and economies of scale. Troopers say high-grade hydroponic marijuana, raised and harvested indoors, is displacing field-grown across New York State. Among the advantages for cultivators are an unlimited growing season and the higher prices paid for potency and off-season availability. Also, police can’t see it from a helicopter. (At one time they employed heat-sensing instruments to detect grow lights, but a 2001 U.S. Su­preme Court decision prohibited use of these technologies without a warrant.)

A disadvantage of hydroponic, judging by local police blotters: once the cops do find it they also tend to find a grower. A man was arrested in Johnsburg in spring 2008 with 57 plants on the stem. A restaurant owner was busted around the same time for growing 500 plants in several Lake George rental cabins. Last fall another guy was arrested in the town of Saranac with 69 plants in and around his house, and a Bolton couple were charged with having 49 plants in their home. All of them faced felony possession charges.

By contrast, last August police acting on a hiker’s tip and using GPS found 50 plants in the woods by Connery Pond, outside of Lake Placid. No one was ever arrested. “In most of these cases, there are no defendants,” says Tom O’Neill, chief deputy of the Essex County Sheriff’s De­partment. Advantage: dirt farmers.

A few weeks after the Irishtown haul, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents stopped a car in St. Lawrence County to find a 17- and 18-year-old—one from Quebec and one from Akwesasne, the St. Regis Mohawk reservation—with 20 pounds of marijuana valued at $60,000. This kind of discovery has become routine; it’s just a trickle in the flow of Quebec-grown hydroponic coursing through the North Country year-round, dispersing to Albany, New York City and as far south as Florida. Even a single carload from the smuggling trade can dwarf any Adirondack harvest.

“There is easily a billion dollars’ worth of marijuana coming through this northern border,” says Franklin County district attorney Derek Champagne. This summer Clinton, Franklin and St. Law­rence Counties were added to a federally designated “High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area” that in­cludes 17 other New York and New Jersey counties, all of them urban. The new classification brings federal funding for equipment and networking among law en­forcement agencies.

Clinton, Franklin and St. Lawrence Counties share a hundred miles of Canadian border, including a dozen crossing points and Akwesasne, a nation unto itself straddling the border on the St. Lawrence River. Jurisdictional ambiguities inside Mohawk territory have fostered a smuggling economy not limited to marijuana.  Cheap hydro­power, looser Canadian drug laws and access to New York markets through the reservation and remote forest have made Quebec a leading producer of po­tent marijuana.

About three-quarters of Quebec hydroponic shipments pass through the Adi­rondack Park, Champagne estimates. For the most part Adirondackers are oblivious to this traffic. But the lure of big money has enticed a few North Country residents to sideline in the business. Three St. Regis Falls residents were arrested in June 2009 and charged with felony drug possession in a multistate marijuana sting. Police allege that one of them, a convenience store owner and building contractor, used his camp on the St. Regis River as a rendezvous where Quebecois im­porters passed hockey bags packed with millions of dollars of weed to Cleveland drug dealers.

Drug importers may unwittingly drive by a few Adirondack marijuana plots, but they have little or no contact with local farmers. Which is how the local farmers like it, especially growers who are getting older and have no stomach for the attitudes, guns, gangsters and violence of the wholesale drug trade.

As insignificant as John and Fred may seem in comparison, their farming is illegal, and police intend to enforce the law. Still, Deputy O’Neill says, “we’re lucky if we get one-tenth of one percent. We don’t know how much is out there, but it’s a lot.”

Police may not be able to document it, but their efforts do have an inhibiting effect, keeping Adirondack growers cautious and, for the most part, small scale. Fred says he has literally jumped at the sound of a jake break on a truck, mistaking it for a helicopter. He recalls a day years ago when a county sheriff’s patrol car drove past, followed by a helicopter with people leaning out the side, taking a good look. He went out that night, with only the moon for light, and cut down all of his plants. He piled them into a trampoline box and took them to an abandoned barn to dry. “That kind of fear will make you want to puke,” Fred says. But not to quit.