An Offensive Assault

THE more marijuana plants destroyed the better. Cultivating the drug is illegal. And while marijuana use in the United States has decreased in recent years, the value of marijuana as a crop has risen as supplies coming from outside the country have been cut off. It would be hypocritical for the United States to goad Latin American countries to eradicate narcotics production while tolerating drug cultivation here.

But who is best equipped to uproot the pot gardens, with the least possibility of intruding on the rights of people who live in a targeted area? That question quickly surfaced as a force of 200 Bureau of Land Management (BLM) agents, National Guardsmen, and soldiers from the regular Army swept into a 640-acre federal conservation plot in rural northern California recently and captured 1,000 or so marijuana plants.

They also caused an uproar in surrounding communities. Many locals complained about noise from low-flying helicopters, damage from Army vehicles, and even trauma from confrontations with armed, camouflaged raiders. They felt like victims of an assault launched more for public-relations than for law-enforcement, ends.

They may have a point. Humbolt County Sheriff David Renner claimed that his team of five deputies had seized more marijuana plants in a day than the federal commandoes managed to round up in their bulky operation.

Still, the BLM's assertion that federal lands cannot be allowed to shelter pot producers is hard to fault. And guardsmen and soldiers may fill useful supporting roles in spotting marijuana fields and guiding the movements of law-enforcement units. The government has mobilized 3,500 guardsmen to take part in a nationwide assault on drug cultivators. Operations are well under way in Missouri, Kentucky, and other marijuana-growing states.

But the flap in California indicates that matters of scale - whether a big show of force is inefficient and does more harm than good - and of community relations could end up being just as important to the success of these operations as how many marijuana plants are bagged.

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