By Michael Gerstein
Drug traffickers have been conducting business deep within the lush canopy of Michigan’s forests since at least 2008. But after five years of eradication efforts, law enforcement agencies say the problem is showing no signs of going away.
The Hiawatha National Forest website flashes a brief message in the corner of the screen: “Keep safe: Marijuana grow sites. Be observant.” There’s a short description of trafficking campsites, and a request that forest users report suspicious activity.
Hiawatha National Forest Supervisor Jo Reyer said that “while it’s unlikely visitors will come across this kind of activity, we also want to make sure that hunters, hikers, campers and other recreationists know how to stay safe.”
Detective Lt. David Peltomaa, who oversaw the State Police marijuana eradication program for 10 years before being reassigned to his current post in Ann Arbor, said he suspects that less than half of the operations are discovered.
In 2008, one of the biggest outdoor grow years for Michigan, more than 50,000 plants were seized by law enforcement agencies. More than 45,000 were seized in 2011. And last year the figure was just under 40,000 plants, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
The statistics do not break down seizures by federal, state, local and private land ownership.
The number of eradicated plants often fluctuates by several thousand from year to year, but that number has spiked substantially since the early 2000s, and held relatively steady since 2008, according to public information officer Rich Isaacson for the DEA’s Detroit division.
“Every year there’s hundreds of outdoor plots – marijuana plots – that are located across the state. And sometimes those are going to be very small amounts, or some will be larger amounts,” he said. “It’s definitely not waning.”
Prior to 2005, marijuana grown on public land was seldom heard of in Michigan. Southwestern states like California always had many more busts.
Some law enforcement officials say it’s a problem that’s here to stay.
“I think it’s a trend because it’s not really something that we’ve seen before the last few years,” said State Police Detective Lt. Ken Mills, who works on a multi-jurisdictional drug trafficking prevention team.
His Northern Michigan team – Straits Area Narcotics Enforcement (SANE) – investigates drug activity in Charlevoix, Cheboygan, Chippewa, Emmet, Mackinac and Otsego counties.
With forests sprawling for millions of acres, law enforcement agencies have trouble finding and busting hard-to-spot pot production sites.
Helicopters are minimally effective unless pilots already know where to look. The plants naturally blend in with surrounding foliage, often to be discovered by recreational forest users.
Nearly all of the grow sites in Michigan were discovered by hikers and hunters rather than law enforcement, and experts like Peltomaa say they’re worried that unsuspecting citizens could be harmed by traffickers, though that hasn’t happened yet.
The problem started to proliferate after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, said Creig Grey with the Department of Natural Resources, which manages the state’s forests, parks and recreation areas.
It became increasingly difficult to transport large loads of marijuana across the U.S. border, so cartels from Mexico
changed their business plan, Grey said, moving production closer to their distribution centers. Experts say that’s only one factor among many.
But the cartels typically only grow large-scale plots. Many of the plants recorded in DEA data also came from smaller plots scattered across the state.
Heather Luebs, the Upper Peninsula Substance Enforcement Team’s administrative assistant with the State Police, said much marijuana is grown in Michigan, but not in the U.P, which borders Wisconsin.
Wisconsin has had more problems than Michigan with drug cartels growing on public land, though authorities say they don’t know why.
A recent 8,000-plant bust in Wisconsin’s Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest was the latest big one, with $8 million worth of marijuana seized.
Authorities say Wisconsin’s cartel troubles are more substantive than Michigan’s, though it is still a pressing issue here.
Investigators like Peltomaa say they think a combination of drug education and harsher punishments might help discourage growers from picking Michigan as their farm site.
“You’ll never stop them, but maybe we can make them go elsewhere.”