DEA locates, uproots 6,500 marijuana plants across St. Thomas, St. John
Published: August 31, 2013
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ST. THOMAS - It's harvest time for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
The crop? Marijuana.
During the last week, an interagency team led by the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area task force has been scouring the bush on St. Thomas and St. John and hauling away marijuana plants by the hundreds.
The eradication effort, usually done on an annual basis, aims to reduce the supply of marijuana in the Virgin Islands, according to Eric Barnard, the resident agent-in-charge for the DEA and the commander of the HIDTA task force on St. Thomas.
"We are reducing supply so that we can focus our time and our resources on criminal investigations," Barnard said. "When we do this, we see afterward an increase in importation, which allows us to focus on interdiction efforts through our airports and parcel services."
This year's eradication effort was more successful than last year's.
On Wednesday, after teams of 12 to 15 law enforcement officers, had located and pulled plants from about 10 grows, the plant count was up to 5,000, the total collected during last year's effort, Barnard said.
After five days of labor-intensive plant-pulling, with officers cutting through heavy bush with machetes and towing away garbage bags full of uprooted plants, the plant count totalled 6,500 plants from St. Thomas and St. John, Barnard said Friday.
Agents use a helicopter on loan from the Puerto Rico National Guard to spot the grows, then communicate their location to agents on the ground.
"Marijuana has a very distinct look to it compared to the vegetation around it," Barnard said.
Barnard said the eradication effort was consistent with DEA operations in other parts of the country, where the primary purpose is to eliminate the crop and to gather intelligence, not necessarily to make arrests or to build cases against growers. Such cases are difficult to prove, as landowners always can disavow any knowledge of the grows and cannot be held liable in court, according to Barnard.
The DEA does not need warrants to enter the bush and eradicate grows because the plants are easily visually identifiable as marijuana, Barnard said.
Even smaller grows with less mature plants represent months of growing. Larger grows can take up half an acre to an acre and yield as many as 3,000 plants. Growers and traffickers could not easily replant and recover their losses after such an eradication effort, Barnard said.
Each marijuana plant can yield tens of thousands of dollars of revenue if allowed to mature to the point of harvesting. Currently, marijuana retails for as much as $400 per ounce, and each plant can yield about 1 kilogram, or about 32 ounces.
"We don't look at it in terms of immediate value, but in terms of potential value," Barnard said.
Agents eradicated about 20 grows on St. Thomas and St. John. The grows were spread throughout the islands, Barnard said. On St. Thomas, more were located on the remote east and west ends.
Barnard said it would be difficult to compare the number of plants collected in the Virgin Islands to other jurisdictions because the territory's limited land mass means that it can not support the more massive grows the DEA had found, for instance, in Kentucky and Appalachia in recent years.
Barnard emphasized that the eradication effort was conducted by officers from a broad swath of agencies, including the V.I. Police Department, Customs and Border Protection, Homeland Security Investigations and the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Agents did not encounter any individuals at any of the grows, and the effort was carried out without incident or injury, Barnard said.
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