When they dismantled a marijuana dealer's field of dreams this weekend, Carroll and state narcotics investigators say they kept more than $500,000 worth of drug profits off the street.
The 900 square feet of suspected marijuana -- the plot contained nearly 378 nearly mature plants -- was one of the biggest outdoor hits this year, said state police Detective Sgt. Eugene R. Winters, who heads the marijuana eradication program.
"This is a significant garden, definitely one of the biggest we've seen this year," the sergeant said.
The find was one of 70 made so far this year by the eradication program's troopers, and state police say it highlights what drug investigators can find when they take to the skies.
Sergeant Winters and his team fly nearly every day of the week to search amid cornfields and trees for growing contraband.
Sometimes, the eradication team acts on tips from citizens or a local drug task force, just as it did Thursday morning when it flew over Sykesville and found the field of 4- to 7-foot-tall plants on a tract of state-owned land just south of Obrecht Road, east of Old Washington Road, Route 97.
Sometimes the team just flies over the state, gazing downward, the sergeant said.
He said that in just under five years, the state police's use of airborne surveillance has helped shrink the number of would-be marijuana farmers, pushed up the street price of pot and forced many dealers to grow their stashes in basements and living rooms rather than in fields.
"We're not eliminating the problem, and it's not going away, but we are pushing them inside," Sergeant Winters said.
The state police routinely destroy more than 20,000 pounds -- roughly $3.2 million worth -- of marijuana a year, according to state police statistics.
With the 368 plants found near Sykesville, state and county drug officials said they knew they had discovered a major patch of pot. But they also knew that if they could stake out the plot, the person responsible for planting the marijuana would eventually come to check on his wares.
It didn't turn out that way. Carroll drug task force members dug into the ground with camouflage from Thursday until Sunday and waited for the grower to show up, said state police Sgt. Gary Cofflin, the Carroll County Narcotics Task Force supervisor.
"What concerned us is that there is a community to the left and a community to the right of this plot," Sergeant Cofflin said. "Young kids and teens were coming down playing in the fields and in the [nearby] stream. We don't think they knew the plot was there."
Sergeant Cofflin added that the task force couldn't afford to keep the surveillance team there around the clock.
"Our main concern was the safety of the kids. If they had stumbled upon the plot while the dealers were there, they may have taken action on the kids."
Still wearing their camouflage, task force members converged on the field at 4 p.m. Sunday. In addition to the plants, they seized five-gallon buckets, shovels and a small greenhouse where seedlings were being started.
The marijuana is to be destroyed in an incinerator within a couple of days, Sergeant Cofflin said.
Had the marijuana gone undetected, it would have been ready for harvest in less than a month, police said. And if that had happened, the person responsible for planting the crop would have made a lot of illicit money.
According to state police statistics, a quarter-ounce of midgrade marijuana sells for $72 in Carroll; the state-wide average is about $63. Those same statistics show that the price of a pound of marijuana on the street is about $1,600.
Mike McKelvin, a state police spokesman, said the haul from the Sykesville marijuana plot would have fetched between $500,000 and $750,000 on the street.