Starks is not going to pot, but it dislikes snooping

NATIONAL CLOSEUP

May 04, 1992|By Steve Stecklow | Steve Stecklow,Knight-Ridder News Service

STARKS, Maine -- Picture a town in which longhaired local officials come dressed to work in tie-dyed T-shirts and sandals.

A town where the country store stocks bongs, roach clips and rolling papers.

A town whose official motto is: "Just say yes to drugs."

That seems to be the picture -- a completely false one -- that many outsiders have of this depressed farm town in western Maine ever since its residents narrowly passed a resolution last month urging state officials to legalize the growing of marijuana.

"We've all received phone calls," said Jane Brackett, Starks' town clerk. "It sounded like some people were ready to sell out and move to Starks because now pot is legal. We just tell them it's still illegal to grow pot in Starks. If you grow it, you're going to get busted."

Not only is pot still illegal in Starks, but some of those who supported the symbolic resolution acknowledge that they would like to keep it that way. The real issue, they insist, is not marijuana. It's the tactics police have used to find the weed around here.

The residents complain of low-flying helicopters that buzz overhead, upsetting the elderly and spooking farm animals, and teams of heavily armed officers in camouflage clothing that tramp through the woods and fields, looking for marijuana plants.

Not to mention some highly publicized nighttime raids on homes and trailers in which police, armed with search warrants, broke down doors.

"As far as the marijuana, we don't smoke or anything," Carolyn Sours said from behind the counter of the Starks Country Store. "We were concerned with how low the helicopters are coming down. Because it does scare the animals, plus people who have a bad heart or anything. I don't think they should be swooping down that low."

Ms. Sours can point to personal experience -- the whirring blades of a descending helicopter last summer prompted two of the pigs on her 20-acre farm to bolt through an electrified fence and escape into the woods.

"They just broke it up nice, and we had to repair it," she said.

Maine's drug enforcement authorities say they are sympathetic to some of the complaints. Few Mainers would argue that the government ought to be snooping around people's property. But the authorities insist that they are only enforcing existing law with the most effective means possible.

Starks was one of five Maine communities that voted in town meetings last month on resolutions that either called for legalizing marijuana-growing or restricting the use of helicopters for pot searches, which has been the practice in Maine for the last two summers. At least two other communities are set to vote in June.

So far, Starks is the only town where a resolution has passed. The vote was 45-42.

Starks seems an unlikely locale for a movement to legalize marijuana. With only 508 residents, the town is lucky even to be on the map. It's got no post office, no gas station, not even a pay phone. Its municipal building, which is on a dirt road and has no sign, is open only twice a week, while its downtown, if you can call it that, has just one store. Moreover, with its trailer parks and beat-up buildings, there's little evidence of drug-financed wealth.

What Starks does have is a lot of farm and forest land, available for relatively low prices. That has attracted a few back-to-nature settlers from out of state. And some of them apparently do like to plant pot beside the corn stalks or out among the trees.

"Oh, sure, I've walked right by it," said Irwin Sensenig, one of the town's three selectmen. "As a matter of fact, every year that I've lived here I've seen some."

Mr. Sensenig has seen two neighbors jailed for growinmarijuana.

Nevertheless, Mr. Sensenig, who opposed the marijuana resolution but feels that the helicopter flights are an invasion of privacy, has only kind words for his busted neighbors.

"You just absolutely can't ask for better people than that. They harm nobody. You're not afraid of anything missing. I leave my doors unlocked," he said, adding, "Nothing like in the big city."

Drug enforcement officers say they intend to resume their federally funded helicopter searches in July. They are hoping to surpass the 24,442 plants seized last year -- placing Maine 22nd in the nation for its marijuana-eradication program.

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