Marijuana detection flights could be curtailed

By Jayson Jacoby / The Baker City Herald

By TERRI HARBER

tharber@bakercityherald.com

Baker County Sheriff Mitch Southwick is worried that proposed cuts in the federal budget will weaken local law enforcement's ability to stop illegal marijuana-growing operations.

An anticipated decrease in the National Guard Counterdrug Program would sharply curtail the helicopter flights that have been a crucial tool in finding pot grows in Baker County.

While Southwick isn't overly concerned about this year, how the proposed cuts would affect operations next year is unknown, he said.

The number of growing areas found in the county has been decreasing over recent years.

"Helicopter fly overs are considered a deterrent," he said.

This is because people often have someone posted near the crop to watch for trouble.

The helicopters flown by National Guard pilots and manned by sheriff's deputies trained to spot the illegal crops are the most maneuverable aircraft because they can slow down, stop and turn around more easily than fixed-wing aircraft, for example.

U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., sent a letter to key members of the Senate Appropriations Committee asking them to preserve funding for the counterdrug program.

President Barack Obama's proposed budget for fiscal 2013, which starts Oct. 1, 2012, would drastically reduce the funding.

The program has been critical to detecting and disrupting drug activity, particularly large-scale marijuana growing operations on public lands in Oregon, according to Merkley.

"Because the drug traffickers operate in areas inaccessible to vehicles and miles from the nearest trailhead, the use of the ONG's (Oregon National Guard's) helicopters are often the only way to find, eradicate, and, after a successful operation, clean up the grow sites," Merkley stated in a letter to Sens. Daniel K. Inouye and Thad Cochran, chairman and ranking member of the committee.

"Under the proposed budget, funding for the Program in Oregon would be cut by 66 percent. This level of funding would significantly reduce, if not eliminate, all counter-drug air support for law enforcement within Oregon," Merkley wrote.

With spring weather finally here, people are beginning to return to the forest for wood gathering, mushroom hunting and other activities.

Southwick asked that anyone contact the Sheriff's Department who notices huts, large amounts of plastic pipe or other indications of marijuana growing.

This includes discovering a site appearing as if it were from last year because the growers likely would return if they successfully harvested a crop last year. Call 541-523-6415.

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