Crime

Hidden pot grows are spiking. Drug teams are using a new tool to find them

Using a new tool this year, Franklin County deputies have seized 70,000 illegal marijuana plants hidden in farmers’ fields.

In the past month, deputies also found 500 pounds of processed cannabis that was ready to be sold on the streets, said sheriff’s officials.

All of it was hiding in plain sight among other Franklin County crops, particularly mature corn stalks.

The illegal growing operations are nothing new.

For years, growers have hidden their forbidden crop among the legal commodities and then cut and removed it before farmers harvested their own crops.

Franklin County deputies have used airplanes to spot the illegal operations.

This year, some of the pot plants were found by farmers while others were discovered using a drone to buzz across fields.

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Franklin County Sheriff's Office

Just this week, deputies found another 26,000 plants in corn fields off Hendricks, Juniper, Olympia and Russell roads.

However, the sheriff’s department and the Washington State Patrol Eradication Narcotics Enforcement teams have not tracked down the illegal growers, said Franklin County Commander Rick Rochleau.

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This year, some of the pot plants were found by farmers while others were discovered using a drone. Franklin County Sheriff's Office

And it’s not clear where the drugs were headed, he said.

A mature outdoor plant can be worth $1,000 to $2,000 depending on conditions, say marijuana industry websites.

Rochleau said this spike in the number of plants was unusual. The county has discovered large grow operations in the past but the amounts have been smaller in recent years.

While marijuana possession in small amounts is legal in the state, it’s illegal to grow marijuana in Franklin County under a ban imposed by the county commissioners.

Drone law enforcement

Most recently the sheriff’s department drone has been used to find illegal pot operations all over the county, including in a thicket on a bluff overlooking the Columbia River, north of Columbia River Road.

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Franklin County Sheriff's Office

The deputies have also used it to help with other investigations.

The department has used it fly over Bureau of Land Management land in an animal abuse case, to search for a suspect near a burning stolen vehicle and trailer.

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Franklin County sheriff’s officials have vowed to post on social media the maps of all their drone flights if it doesn’t jeopardize an ongoing investigation so they can “maximize transparency and public awareness” of their program. Franklin County Sheriff's Office

In August, deputies used the drone find a fleeing suspect and arrest him.

“The drones have been very useful for us,” Rochleau said. “We have software that lets us use them for mapping crime and accident scenes, as well as searches.”

Using them to scan fields for marijuana increases the area they can cover and can alert them to people who might be hiding in the fields, he said.

Sheriff’s officials have vowed to post on social media the maps of all their drone flights if it doesn’t jeopardize an ongoing investigation so they can “maximize transparency and public awareness” of their program.

Cameron Probert covers breaking news and education for the Tri-City Herald, where he tries to answer readers’ questions about why police officers and firefighters are in your neighborhood. He studied communications at Washington State University.
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