Marijuana growing on artillery range fuels $2 million fire

October 16, 1992|By Bruce Reid | Bruce Reid,Staff Writer

Marijuana growers in Maryland are getting more creative and perhaps more desperate, even willing to risk artillery fire to produce a good crop without its being detected.

One "extremely clever" such effort yielded a huge harvest yesterday -- for state and federal drug agents who seized and destroyed more than 900 marijuana plants found in a highly secure "downrange" area of Aberdeen Proving Ground.

The plants, representing one of the largest marijuana crops ever discovered in Maryland, had an estimated street value of more than $2 million, said Special Agent Andrew S. Manning of the FBI's Baltimore office.

The growing area lies just off the Gunpowder River at the Army research and weapons-testing installation in Harford County.

The growing site is in an impact area for shells used in the testing of artillery and other weapons, said Jack Roth, a top civilian official at the proving ground. "Since the place was opened [1917], it was an impact area," Mr. Roth said.

Officials said they were unsure whether there was unexploded ordnance near the growing site.

State and federal marijuana eradication efforts have forced pot growers to move their operations to state parks, other isolated areas and indoors, said Sgt. Gene Winters, who heads the 10-year-old eradication program for the Maryland State Police.

"They [the growers] are very clever," Sergeant Winters said. "This is just another extension of that."

A game warden working for the proving ground had found the remains of a pot crop at the spot in November, officials said.

Authorities returned there in the spring, discovered a new crop and followed it through the growing season.

"The later in the year it got, the more we watched it," Agent Manning said.

The area is well behind manned security gates, and the growers reached it by boat, the agent said.

After the plants were harvested yesterday, they were burned in a medical waste incinerator on the proving ground.

State police and FBI agents, working with the Army and local police, were interviewing three suspects yesterday, officials said, but no arrests were made.

Authorities also executed a search warrant at a White Marsh

house, Agent Manning said.

The agent said none of the suspects -- all civilians -- works at the proving ground or lives there.

Army officials said the Harford crop, which included some plants 15 feet tall, was the first found on the 72,000-acre proving ground, which includes many remote areas and has 103 miles of shoreline along the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries.

The crop, 918 plants weighing more than 1,300 pounds, covered about one-quarter acre in the proving ground's Edgewood area and was mingled with undergrowth and trees, officials said.

Speaking of a principal suspect, Sergeant Winters said: "It's obvious from the location that this guy is well aware of what we are doing. This particular individual is extremely clever, because he knew it was a restricted air space."

State and federal agents use aircraft to spot such crops.

Sergeant Winters said the suspects were seen and photographed by police tending the crop at all hours of the day.

"Coming in at night seemed to be their preference," he said.

Sergeant Winters and other police who participated in the harvesting and destruction of the plants seemed to marvel at the apparent expertise of the growers.

Examining the plants, some with stalks that were 1 1/2 inches in diameter and resembled small trees, Sergeant Winters explained how the growers cultivated the crop and maximized its yield of more potent buds.

"If you had seen these plants in their natural setting and stood back, you would have said, 'This guy really knew what the hell he was doing,' " he said.

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