FRANKLIN COUNTY, Wash. - Illegal marijuana grows are on the rise in Franklin County, and deputies are doing what they can to put a dent in the operations.
Since the beginning of September, they've seized around 70,000 pot plants. They're mainly found in cornfields, the most Capt. Monty Huber has seen in his 16 years of doing this job.
"They come in and plant it and essentially steal the water and the nutrients from the corn," Huber said. "They want to go in far enough so it can't be easily seen from the road."
On Sept. 18, deputies discovered an illegal grow on a farm in northern Franklin County. They used the Washington State Patrol's plane to find the illegal plants. However, farmers going through their field also report the illegal activity.
Many growers will go far into the field. This particular bust, they went more than 50 rows back. 300 plants were found.
"They work really hard on trying to make sure it wasn't detected," Huber said. "Every row of marijuana, they cut down two rows of corn."
One tool helps deputies determine exactly how much the sheriff's office is dealing with. A drone is initially flown above the cornfield to see if anyone is in it for the safety of the deputies. Then, they can see how many rows of pot plants they are going to confiscate.
"It's an invaluable tool, especially with the thermal image, we're able to clear the field quickly," said Detective Josh Dennis.
Having pot plants in the cornfield allows them to grow taller, Huber says. During this bust, the team of deputies saw the plants already partially cut.
"They've come in and they've cut the plant," Huber explained. "They've taken it once and more likely they'll want to come back in a week or so and take the rest of that."
A big concern is the hazard the pot plants pose to the crops.
"Some of the grow, you know, we found bags of fertilizer that weren't found in the United States, and they are toxic to the soil and the crops," Huber said. "Whoever put the marijuana in this field, we don't know what else they put on the plant."
Farmers have the Department of Ecology out to tests the crops before selling them, Huber says. Corn in this field is meant for animals.
Not only is it damaging the farmer's crops but also their wallet. The plants need sunlight and water. Huber said growers take the water for the crops and use it for the pot plants.
Each plant is worth about $1,000 on the low end, Huber says. The consequences of running this kind of operation are huge.
"Trespassing, then you have manufacturing of marijuana," Huber said. "Then you have the destruction to the property of the crop."
All the charges are felonies.
When deputies take out the plants, they bundle them. One is kept as evidence. The others are sent to the incinerator in Spokane.
Huber said the growers typically take the processed marijuana to the east coast where it's illegal and make more money.
"There's obviously a market for it or they wouldn't be doing it," Huber said.
Some cases this year may be related, but Huber said he doesn't think they all are.
For Huber and the sheriff's office, it's about stopping whoever is responsible.
"It's a big dent in their operation and hopefully they think twice before doing it again, in our county at least," Dennis said.
"We need the help of the citizens of the country to be our eyes and ears and to report the things that are suspicious," Huber said.
The Franklin County Sheriff's Office believes illegal grows will start to wind down as farmers start to harvest their crops.
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