Published on:
Friday, December 14, 2018

Police Stop Aerial-Searches for Weed Grows and Target Opioids

In the autumn of 1985, and every autumn since, unlicensed cannabis farmers across the country braced for the sounds of Air Guard helicopters chopping toward their grows. In 1985, Ronald Reagan was just into his second term as President, and his administration’s “War on Drugs” was in high gear. The choppers crawling through the skies above known cultivation regions were part of the DEA’s Domestic Cannabis Eradication Program. They were scouts, sent to relay coordinates back to state law enforcement agencies who would move in for the kill.

In Vermont, for example, the Cannabis Eradication Resource Team uprooted as many as 7,000 plants in a single season in 1998. But with legalization’s historic expansion, and the lethal opioid crisis facing the U.S., police are giving up the aerial hunt for cannabis grows and diverting those resources toward the fight against opioids. And in Vermont, where police flew their last mission with the Air Guard in 2015, the program has been officially disbanded.

How Vermont’s “Cannabis Eradication Resource Team” Crashed and Burned

Vermont’s opioid crisis isn’t as dire as some other state’s. But the rate of opioid-related overdose deaths is sharply on the rise there and higher than the national average. The prevalence of opioid abuse is also creating a public safety emergency. Police say they’re seeing significant upticks in break-ins, burglaries and drug store robberies. And when Vermont legalized adult-use cannabis in January 2018, it gave police another reason to shift their focus. Federal and state funding for the Cannabis Eradication Resource Team had already dropped off. And the aerial missions were fast-becoming too costly and resource-intensive.

According to DEA statistics, reduced funding hindered the program’s effectiveness. It destroyed less plants and made fewer arrests. The helicopters no longer had the resources to spot all the small-scale, backyard grows it used to. In 2013, Vermont Police decided to search only for commercial-scale grows. Two years later, the Team flew its last mission, and the Eradication program was effectively grounded. Limited funding still came in from federal and state budgets. But Vermont police departments were less and less willing to commit their officers to chasing down weed grows.

Resources were needed, instead, for more pressing public safety issues related to opioid trafficking and abuse. With those issues worsening across Vermont, officials decided to officially disband the decades old Cannabis Eradication program. And they’re now re-committing those resources to focusing on the opioid epidemic.

Vermont Police Will Still Search for Large-Scale Grows Using Informants

The hunt for Vermont’s unlicensed grow operations isn’t over, however. It just won’t involve any Air Guard helicopters. Instead, Detective Lt. Casey Daniell says state police will rely heavily on confidential informant information to sniff out cannabis farms. If Vermont Police do use surveillance flights at all, they will only be to chase leads about large-scale operations, according to Daniell.

Stories like the slow and steady decline of the Cannabis Eradication Resource Team in Vermont highlight many of the central arguments made by advocates of legalization. That legalization allows for the more effective use of law enforcement resources and public funds. That legally prescribed and widely available drugs like synthetic opioids pose a much greater threat to public health and safety. And yet, even with the end of a military-supported search-and-destroy operation, Vermont Police are still devoting resources, even if much less, to busting grow operations.

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