Residents of Appalachia Make the Transition From Moonshine to Pot : Drugs: Kentucky is one of the top five states in U.S. marijuana production. The area’s poverty makes the fight against the crop tougher.


Deep in the hills of Appalachia, the U.S. government is waging war against the richest cash crop in Kentucky--marijuana.

Its planting season has ended. Most of the crop has been sold in advance in deals sealed the old-fashioned way, with a handshake. The planters’ booby traps are in place.

And, between now and harvest time in autumn, a small army of government agents will do all it can to destroy plants that yield at least $1,500 apiece and form part of a nationwide underground economy worth billions.


Marijuana is grown in all 50 American states, but five--including Kentucky--account for more than half of domestic production, government figures indicate.

In Kentucky, poverty, a tradition of risk-taking and a pronounced streak of stubbornness among the mountain people combine to make the anti-drug effort particularly difficult, drug experts say.

“The same areas that produced moonshine whiskey are the areas that now produce marijuana,” said Bill Dixon, the U.S. Forest Service agent in charge of the Daniel Boone National Forest, where much of Kentucky’s marijuana is grown.

“This is because of the remoteness of the area, the level of poverty, the lack of jobs . . . . Entire communities revolve around the illegal product.”

The heirs of Kentucky’s Prohibition-era moonshiners employ tactics reminiscent of the Vietnam War to protect their plants: tripwires linked to dynamite, sharpened sticks at the bottom of concealed pits on tracks leading to marijuana fields, fishhooks set at eye level.

The government deploys spotter planes, helicopters and heavily armed National Guardsmen, who last year slashed and burned 616,000 plants. Enough escaped detection to keep Kentucky in the top five marijuana states.

Barring a miracle, drug experts say, Kentucky will stay on top of the list: Marijuana is the only business that flourishes in eastern Kentucky and Appalachia, a range of hills that has become a byword for rural poverty in the United States.

The arguments some of the locals use to defend the illicit crop echo drug-cultivating peasants of Latin America: Give us an alternative source of income and we will take it.

Since the price of coal, one of the pillars of the Kentucky economy, fell in the mid-1980s, more than 14,000 mining jobs have been lost. Only two of the 20 coal mines that operated a decade ago have survived the slump.

Profits from tobacco, the other economic pillar, cannot compete with marijuana, which allows even small-time growers to clear more than $100,000 a year.

Hostility to government eradication efforts runs deep.

“There are some counties where they will tell us there’s no other way to make a living,” Dixon said. “When we pull up there, they won’t sell us gasoline; they won’t even sell us a cold drink; they close the shops.”

Federal anti-drug fighters complain that local authorities show little enthusiasm in cracking down on constituents on whose votes they depend for elective offices, such as sheriff or county judge.

Turning a blind eye is not the only problem that hampers the anti-marijuana drive. Archie Powers, a county judge from the town of Corbin, has just been sent to jail for 6 1/2 years for accepting bribes.

Four sheriffs and a police chief from nearby London are due to go on trial soon on corruption charges.

To avoid having their homes and cars seized under progressively tightened forfeiture laws, most growers have stopped cultivating marijuana on their own land and have moved their patches to the Daniel Boone forest.

That makes the anti-drug campaign even more difficult. Sprawling over 670,000 acres, the rugged terrain provides ideal cover for marijuana plants--even for the 16-foot giants raised by Kentucky’s agro-experts.

“A lot of patches are spotted by aerial reconnaissance,” said Dave Haight, head of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Kentucky office in Louisville. “But we don’t know how much we are missing.”

They miss a lot, to hear local residents tell it. To reduce the risk of losing their entire crop in one fell swoop, growers have begun planting smaller plots but more of them, scattered over larger areas.

The quality of the product commands respect even from the men paid to destroy it. “It’s very, very high,” Dixon said. “California used to have the highest quality, but now ours compares well with anything grown in the United States.”

Haight said: “Our product is better than any import; it has a much higher THC content.”

THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, is the active ingredient in marijuana, the agent that produces the “high.” Produced from female plants, the U.S. “sinsemilla” (seedless) variety packs up to eight times as much punch as imported marijuana.

That is one reason why sinsemilla has steadily expanded its share of the U.S. market and is now the marijuana of choice for an estimated 20 million Americans who use the drug daily.

The other reason: a huge effort to seal the U.S. borders to imported marijuana during the eight years of the Ronald Reagan Administration. The reduction in imports created rich incentives to increase America’s own production.

By volume, home-grown marijuana is now thought to account for at least 25% of U.S. consumption, up from next to nothing a decade ago. By value, American marijuana accounts for half the market because sinsemilla costs twice as much as weaker imports.

Although it comes nowhere near the $18 billion a year generated by corn, the No. 1 American cash crop, home-grown marijuana now ranks among the most important commodities grown in the United States. Conservative estimates put growers’ revenues at $3 billion.