AT this time of year in much of rural America, the hills are alive with the sound of helicopters. It's the height of the marijuana harvest, and law enforcement officials are on the trail of those illegal entrepreneurs whose efforts bring in the country's most lucrative cash crop. Increasingly, the ranks of ``pot busters'' include active-duty military personnel and national guardsmen, which has upset some local officials and civil libertarians.
Fewer Americans smoke marijuana these days, and among ``recreational drugs'' it doesn't bring the social disruption, crime, and violence that crack cocaine and others do. So why the fuss?
``It's still the most abused drug in the country,'' says Drug Enforcement Administration spokesman Joseph Keefe. Some 12 million Americans use marijuana regularly. With increased efforts to interdict the drug, many foreign dealers have turned to other substances. This has opened the market to home-grown grass, which accounts for a fourth to a third of what is sold in this country and amounts to a $20 billion business. In Florida alone, marijuana plants seized last year would have produced 56 marijuana cigarettes for every Floridian.
``Until the early 1980s, domestic production was unheard of,'' Mr. Keefe says. ``Now it's become bigger business, and there's more money in it.''
More troubling to health and law enforcement officials, US marijuana contains up to 10 times as much of the ``high'' producing agent (tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC) as the imported variety. Sophisticated cross-fertilization has made it some of the most potent in the world, as well as profitable ($3,000 a pound).
``We've been told by informants that seeds from the Ozarks have such high THC content that they're taken to Colombia to grow marijuana there,'' reports Sgt. Terry Moore of the Missouri Highway Patrol.
Since it is pressuring other nations to crack down on drug production and trafficking, the Bush administration feels obliged to do the same at home. It raised federal funds for local marijuana-eradication by $10 million this year. And it is dispatching active-duty and national-guard troops to join the domestic drug war.
Operation ``Green Sweep'' in northern California recently included 58 US Army soldiers. Operation ``Ghost Dancer,'' which just began in Oregon, involves 225 infantry soldiers and aviators and their nine UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters from Fort Lewis, Wash. They are conducting reconnaissance missions over 2.2 million acres of US Bureau of Land Management territory preparing for raids by federal, state, and local law enforcement agents.
``This is sending a strong message to people abroad that the United States is really very serious about the war on drugs and is not going to tolerate drug production,'' says BLM spokesman Michael Ratliff.
Such operations fall under ``military assistance to civil authority'' allowed under federal law for things like earthquakes and forest fires. They also reflect some concern in Washington that local officials are not doing all they can to wipe out drug production. In Kentucky last week, four sheriffs, a deputy sheriff, and a police chief were charged in a Federal Bureau of Investigation sting with conspiracy, drug distribution, and taking money to protect drug traffickers.
The increased federal presence is not entirely welcomed by local officials, the vast majority of whom are not corrupt and believe they are in a better position to bust local marijuana growers.
``Anytime you start dealing with the Army, you deal with a bureaucracy and a lot of red tape,'' says Sheriff David Burk of Lane County, Ore.
Still, local officials are working closely with US military units. And even though tens of thousands of reservists are being called up to support the massive US military presence in Saudi Arabia, the Bush administration has no intention of lessening military involvement in the war on drugs at home.
``The president still feels very strongly about the drug interdiction task that the Defense Department has,'' says Maj. Douglas Hart, a Pentagon spokesman. ``The military will continue to help other agencies when we receive requests.'' There is also a federal obligation because much marijuana growing takes place on national forest and BLM lands as well as in national parks. Last year in Oregon alone, the BLM eradicated 355 sites with a total crop of 16,900 plants worth $42 million.
``The public lands, from our point of view, are for campers and hunters and not drug dealers,'' says the BLM's Mr. Ratliff. ``We think it's a serious problem and one that needs to be addressed quickly.''
While active-duty forces working on drug eradication and interdiction have gotten the most attention, it is the ``weekend warriors'' of the National Guard that are doing most of the work. On average, more than 2,000 guardsmen and women are involved in anti-drug work - from helping customs agents search cargo at airports to boarding up inner-city crack houses to searching out and destroying marijuana crops.
``This time of year, the entire country is involved,'' says Maj. Robert Dunlap of National Guard headquarters in Washington, referring to the 54 National Guard entities in states and territories.
One sign of success in marijuana eradication - especially aerial reconnaissance - is that large patches are being replaced by very small ones.
``My sense is that we haven't stopped it, but we have gotten some key growers. And some of those people have gotten time in the federal prison system,'' says Sheriff Burk. ``When they get substantial sentences, that gets people's attention.''