National Drug Intelligence Center
Illicit drug production in the Appalachia HIDTA region consists of cannabis cultivation, small-scale powder methamphetamine production, conversion of powder cocaine to crack cocaine, and very limited conversion of powder methamphetamine to high-purity ice methamphetamine. Cannabis cultivation and small-scale powder methamphetamine production take place throughout the region. Crack cocaine conversion takes place principally in urban areas of the region. Ice methamphetamine conversion, which is very limited, typically occurs in rural areas of the region.
Most of the marijuana available in the Appalachia HIDTA region is produced locally at outdoor grow sites in the M7 states of Kentucky, Tennessee, and West Virginia; a small amount is produced at indoor grow sites. According to DCE/SP data, of the 7,033,921 indoor and outdoor cannabis plants eradicated in the United States in 2007 (the latest year for which such data are available), 7 percent were eradicated in Kentucky (492,625), 3 percent in Tennessee (178,322), and 1 percent in West Virginia (44,732).
Outdoor cannabis cultivation is prevalent throughout the Appalachia HIDTA region. Most outdoor grow sites in the region are operated by Caucasian DTOs, criminal groups, and independent growers; some sites in Tennessee are operated by Mexican DTOs and criminal groups. Traffickers locate some outdoor cannabis grow sites on public lands and in parks to prevent the seizure of private property if discovered; such lands include the Daniel Boone and Cherokee National Forests and the Great Smoky Mountains and Big South Fork National Parks, as well as lands owned and controlled by the Tennessee Valley Authority.16 Tennessee law enforcement officials report that cannabis cultivators have intensified efforts to protect their crops from discovery, thievery, and eradication through the increased use of violence and booby traps. (See Figure 2.) Late frosts and severe drought conditions throughout the southeastern United States in 2007 caused a sharp decrease in the amount of cannabis cultivated and eradicated in the Appalachia HIDTA region during that year. Cannabis growers adapted to the erratic weather conditions by establishing grow sites closer to natural water sources. As a result, substantially more cannabis was eradicated in the Appalachia HIDTA region in 2008 than in 2007. Data from the Appalachia HIDTA, Kentucky State Police, and Tennessee Bureau of Investigation indicate that approximately 756,757 cultivated cannabis plants were eradicated from outdoor grow sites in the Appalachia HIDTA region in 2008, a 76 percent increase from the number eradicated in 2007.17 (See Table 2.)
Figure 2. Punji Stick Boards Seized From Cannabis Cultivation Operations Near Fentress County, Tennessee, 2008
Tennessee Alcoholic Beverage Commission
Table 2. Cannabis Plants Eradicated at Outdoor and Indoor Grow Sites in Appalachia HIDTA Counties, 2006-2008
Sources: Appalachia High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area; Kentucky State Police; Tennessee Bureau of Investigation; West Virginia Army National Guard.
Elaborate Outdoor Cannabis Grow Site Seized in the Cherokee National Forest
In June 2008, federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies eradicated approximately 357,500 cannabis plants from a large cannabis grow operation located in the Cherokee National Forest near Interstate 40 in eastern Cocke County, Tennessee. The elaborate operation included multiple grow sites scattered across several acres of land approximately 5 miles from the North Carolina-Tennessee state line. Law enforcement officials speculate that the site had been operated by a well-organized Mexican DTO, based on the operational setup and materials located at the site, which included food, personal hygiene items, makeshift tents, and a propane stove. The cannabis growers most likely had lived at the site and tended to the plants for several years prior to detection. The growers had used an elaborate irrigation system of hoses, sprinklers, and other fittings that supplied water from holes dug for catching and retaining water, in addition to a man-made dam built with logs, concrete, and plastic.
Aerial View of a Large Cannabis Grow Operation Located in the Cherokee National Forest, 2008
Sources: Appalachia High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area; Tennessee Alcoholic Beverage Commission.
Indoor cannabis cultivation takes place throughout most of the Appalachia HIDTA region. Law enforcement officials report that some DTOs and criminal groups have shifted from outdoor cannabis cultivation to indoor cultivation in an attempt to avoid erratic weather conditions and vigorous outdoor eradication efforts by law enforcement. The number of indoor plants eradicated from grow operations in the region increased 85 percent from 2007 through 2008. (See Table 2.) In addition, 1,882 cannabis plants were eradicated from indoor grow sites located in Tennessee HIDTA counties, according to the Appalachia HIDTA. Some cannabis cultivators are also locating their operations indoors in an attempt to attain a higher profit margin, since higher-potency marijuana produced from indoor grow sites typically yields higher prices. For example, domestic indoor-grown marijuana sold for $3,250 per pound at the wholesale level in the region in 2008, while domestic outdoor-grown marijuana sold for $2,000 per pound at the wholesale level, according to Appalachia HIDTA officials. Moreover, indoor cannabis cultivators are able to cultivate year-round with four to six harvests per year, compared with the two harvests per year that typically occur with outdoor cultivation.
Caucasian DTOs, criminal groups, and independent dealers operate small-scale powder methamphetamine laboratories in the Appalachia HIDTA region. Law enforcement officials report low to moderate levels of methamphetamine production throughout most of the region. Methamphetamine laboratory seizure data suggest rising methamphetamine production in the region. The number of reported methamphetamine laboratory seizures in the region decreased overall from 2004 through 2007; however, 2008 data indicate that methamphetamine production is increasing. According to National Seizure System (NSS) data, the number of reported methamphetamine laboratories seized in Appalachia HIDTA counties increased from 193 laboratories in 2007 to 248 laboratories in 2008. (See Table 3.) The increase in methamphetamine production has been accomplished largely by individuals and criminal groups that circumvent pseudoephedrine sales restrictions by making numerous small-quantity purchases of products containing pseudoephedrine (a process known as "smurfing"18) and by using the one-pot cook method, sometimes called the "shake and bake" method. (See text box.) Tennessee Methamphetamine Task Force officials report that the one-pot production method is becoming the primary methamphetamine production method in eastern Tennessee. Most methamphetamine laboratories seized in the region used pseudoephedrine with the iodine/red phosphorus or anhydrous ammonia method of production.
Table 3. Methamphetamine Laboratories Seized in Appalachia HIDTA Counties, 2004-2008
Source: National Seizure System, data run on March 2, 2009.
One-Pot, or "Shake and Bake," Methamphetamine Production
A one-pot cook is actually a variation of the anhydrous ammonia method of production; however, in the one-pot method, cooks use a combination of commonly available chemicals to synthesize the anhydrous ammonia essential for methamphetamine production. In doing so, they are able to produce the drug in approximately 30 minutes at nearly any location by mixing ingredients in easily found containers, such as a 2-liter plastic soda bottle, as opposed to using other methods that require hours to heat ingredients on a stove, a process that could result in toxic fumes, primarily from the anhydrous ammonia. Producers often use the one-pot cook while traveling in vehicles and dispose of waste components along roadsides. Discarded plastic bottles may carry residual chemicals that can be toxic, explosive, or flammable.
Retail-level crack cocaine distributors, typically African American criminal groups and members of street gangs, convert powder cocaine to crack near intended markets, most of which are located in urban areas of the region. They generally convert and distribute crack on an as-needed basis, typically in ounce quantities.
Caucasian methamphetamine abusers convert powder methamphetamine to high-purity ice methamphetamine on a very limited basis in rural areas of the region. Most ice methamphetamine available in the region is supplied by Mexican DTOs and criminal groups as well as Caucasian traffickers who obtain the drug from sources in Arizona, Georgia, and North Carolina. Ice methamphetamine is the product that results when powder methamphetamine is recrystalized in a solvent such as water, methanol, ethanol, isopropanol, or acetone to remove impurities; the drug is typically converted for personal use and limited local distribution. Ice methamphetamine conversion generally takes place in residences, such as mobile homes, and at remote outdoor sites located on abandoned land in rural areas.
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DTOs use various means of conveyance to transport illicit drugs into and through the Appalachia HIDTA region, principally from sources of supply in Atlanta; Columbus; Detroit; and Pittsburgh, as well as sources in Florida, North Carolina, and Texas. DTOs most commonly use private and commercial vehicles to transport illicit drugs into and through the region along primary roadways; they sometimes transport drug proceeds back to source areas using the same conveyances and routes. Domestic Highway Enforcement (DHE) interdiction teams monitor the interstates in Kentucky, Tennessee, and West Virginia. (See Figure 3.) Traffickers also use secondary and back roads in an attempt to evade law enforcement interdiction. In 2008, DHE interdiction teams in Tennessee counties of the Appalachia HIDTA seized 445 kilograms of marijuana, 90 kilograms of crack cocaine, 73 kilograms of powder cocaine, 107 grams of methamphetamine, 905 dosage units of CPDs, 36 dosage units of MDMA, and more than $631,348 in U.S. currency from traffickers using interstates and adjacent secondary roads within the Tennessee counties of the HIDTA region. Some traffickers transport, or hire couriers to transport, drugs on commercial aircraft. For instance, Appalachia HIDTA officials report that CPD distributors purchase inexpensive round-trip airfare tickets and travel from Charleston or Huntington to Miami, Florida, where they illicitly obtain CPDs that they then bring back to the HIDTA region to distribute at the retail level. Traffickers and abusers also use package delivery services and U.S. mail to transport illicit drugs such as marijuana, methamphetamine, and CPDs into the region.
Figure 3. Appalachia HIDTA Transportation Infrastructure
National forests suffer from the collateral effects of cannabis cultivation, including
property damage to natural resources, archeological sites, and wildlife. Cannabis
cultivators have destroyed numerous trees, plants, and fauna as well as park gates
and fences by clearing grow sites and driving vehicles to and from those sites.
17. In 2007, DEA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Forest Service initiated Operation Up In Smoke, an effort designed to investigate, arrest, and federally prosecute cannabis growers in Kentucky. Law enforcement authorities have arrested many cannabis growers, eradicated several thousand cannabis plants, and seized cannabis seeds, processed plants, and various firearms as a result of this initiative. During 2008 this multiagency law enforcement initiative successfully disrupted cannabis grow operations in many Appalachia HIDTA counties, including Bell, Breathitt, Clay, Harlan, Jackson, Knox, Laurel, Leslie, Owsley, Pike, Wayne, and Whitley.
18. Ephedrine and pseudoephedrine smurfing is a method used by some methamphetamine traffickers to acquire large quantities of precursor chemicals. Methamphetamine producers purchase the chemicals in quantities at or below legal thresholds from multiple retail locations. Methamphetamine producers often enlist the assistance of several friends or associates to increase the speed of the smurfing operation and the quantity of chemicals acquired.
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