Moonshine Cannabis

When one thinks of booming cannabis production, Appalachia is probably not the first place that comes to mind. But the region is one of the largest cannabis producers in the country.

Appalachia, defined by the mountain range and, in many parts, a shared culture, stretches roughly from southern New York state to northern Mississippi, over parts of thirteen states. Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia, the western parts of Virginia and North Carolina, and northern Georgia comprise the region’s core, and many of these same areas are designated as High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas by the DEA, for cannabis as well as other drugs.

The region’s large swaths of public land, isolated rural communities, and a long history of moonshining have made Appalachia a tough nut to crack for law enforcement. Yet at the same time, the region’s conservative politics and resistance to legalization has meant that several Appalachian states—namely Tennessee, Kentucky, and Georgia—receive more federal money to stamp out cannabis cultivation than any anywhere else except California, through what’s known as the Domestic Cannabis Eradication/Suppression Program.

Founded in 1979, the Eradication/Suppression program grew rapidly throughout the 1980’s, fueled by the War on Drugs. In just six years, the program expanded from Hawaii and California to all fifty states. It provides federal funding to state and local law enforcement to support operations aimed at getting rid of cannabis—anything from paying for overtime hours so that officers can pull up illegal grows, to paying for special equipment or training a unit might need to bolster its eradication efforts.

Its roots in Appalachia go back to 1983, when Tennessee’s former governor Lamar Alexander—now a US Senator—hosted a conference in Nashville with the governors of fourteen southern states, to come up with a strategy to combat drug use across the South. Shortly after that, he signed Executive Order 51 to create an interagency task force specifically geared towards cannabis eradication in Tennessee (most other states also have similar interagency task forces for this same purpose).

The task force would work in conjunction with federal law enforcement and “may apply for, receive, and expend federal grant funds or other funds made available for the eradication of marijuana.” In other words, they could apply for Eradication/Suppression Program funding.

And that’s how the process still works today for law enforcement agencies across the country. Such task forces can choose whether to request Eradication/Suppression Program funding from the Drug Enforcement Administration and how much to ask for.

Then, “the DEA makes a funding decision based upon the numbers sent in by the state law enforcement agencies, like numbers of plants eradicated or community education efforts,” DEA representative Melvin Patterson told Cannabis Wire.

In recent years both state-level legalization efforts and pressure from members of Congress, like California Congressman Ted Lieu, who sees the funding as wasteful, have succeeded in shrinking the Eradication/Suppression Program budget. Between 2014 and 2017, according to data obtained by Cannabis Wire through public records requests, the amount of money allocated to the the program has been halved, from $18 million to just above $9.1 million.

States like Colorado, for instance, where cannabis is legal, have stopped requesting Eradication/Suppression Program money entirely. Other states that don’t have a significant illegal production problem, like North Dakota, also don’t generally request eradication funding.

But while nearly every state has seen its Eradication/Suppression Program allocation shrink in recent years, Kentucky still received a whopping $1,433,000 in cannabis eradication funding in 2017 alone. Tennessee and Georgia each received $600,000 in federal dollars toward cannabis eradication.

States with some of the strictest cannabis laws in the country are part of Appalachia, namely in the south. Yet despite decades of federal funding, domestic cannabis cultivation has proven difficult to root out.

In the years before Lamar Alexander signed Executive Order 51, cannabis cultivation was on the upswing in parts of Appalachia, a trend that began in the 1970’s, according to Professor Brent Paterline, who heads the University of Northern Georgia’s Criminal Justice department. He said the growth of black market cannabis in Appalachia has its roots in another illicit industry: moonshining.

Up until the 1970s, moonshining was a way for poor farmers to make extra money in the South’s many dry counties, where liquor was illegal. The thick mountain forests were the perfect hiding place for small unlicensed stills, where moonshiners would work under the cover of darkness to produce illegal and untaxed liquor.

“In those days in Georgia, for instance, you might have to drive all the way to Atlanta to get liquor,” says Paterline. But in the 1970’s more and more of those dry counties began to legalize liquor, and suddenly moonshining was no longer profitable.

So some farmers turned to cannabis.

In Appalachia, those same wide swaths of national forests that shielded moonshiners now provide cover for illegal grows.

“We have a lot of public land and forests,” said Micky Hatmaker, Deputy Director for the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Appalachia. “Big areas like Daniel Boone National Forest in Kentucky, it’s so large that it’s nearly impossible for law enforcement to cover the whole area.”

According to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, about 25 percent of eradication in the state takes place on public land. And the vast majority of the cannabis eradicated comes from the eastern part of the state, where some of the poorest counties are located.

“In most cases in Appalachia, the people growing are not criminal organizations,” says Paterline. “They’re individual farmers with families, who are good Christians, who are trying to supplement their farming.”

And even if someone is growing on their own land, Paterline says that the insulated culture of Appalachian towns makes arresting and convicting a grower an uphill battle. “In many of these areas, everyone is cousin or kin,” he says. These close ties within the community make it difficult for law enforcement to cultivate criminal informants and unlikely that a jury will deliver a conviction if a case goes to trial. “It’s an accepted way of life. Everyone knows that people are growing and they know why.”

But exactly how much cannabis is coming out of the hills? It’s hard to say. A November 2018 report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that most law enforcement “agencies inconsistently reported data to the DEA, making it difficult to assess the program’s performance.”

In a study conducted in 2006, Jon Gettman, who teaches criminal justice at Shenandoah University, ranked Tennessee second in the nation for cannabis production, just behind California. Kentucky, North Carolina, West Virginia, and Georgia all made it into the top ten.

In an interview with Cannabis Wire, Gettman said that it’s nearly impossible to find exact numbers around cannabis production in the area. But, he says, it’s substantially more than what law enforcement manages to seize or eradicate.

In 2006, he said, “law enforcement was estimating that the actual number of cannabis grown was about four or five times what they were able to seize. But that’s changing now as the market changes and there are more indoor grows.”

As law enforcement has ramped up efforts to stifle indoor cultivation, growers have changed tactics. Paterline says that some growers in Appalachia have taken to hiding their indoor grows in chicken coops, masking the telltale heat signature that can be detected from law enforcement helicopters.

Cannabis eradication efforts have done little to rid the US of these plants—and in fact, have unfolded alongside a national push toward legalization. Still, according to the DEA, when other law enforcement agencies need training, they come to Kentucky and Tennessee in Appalachia.

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Cannabis Wire
Cannabis Wire
Cannabis is rich territory for serious journalism. Legalization raises urgent questions about regulation and law, technology and taxation, science and business, criminal justice and individual liberties. It stands at the intersection of a booming billion-dollar industry and promising advances in medicine, all while remaining federally illegal.

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