Consumers Union Report on Licit and Illicit Drugs

The Consumers Union Report on Licit and Illicit Drugs

by Edward M. Brecher and the Editors of Consumer Reports Magazine, 1972

Chapter 59. The 1969 marijuana shortage and "Operation Intercept"

The extent of marijuana use and distribution in the United States was brought to nationwide attention in the spectacular failure of "Operation Intercept," an elaborate and determined effort by the government to shut off the flow of smuggled marijuana from Mexico. The program was based on the belief that Mexico was and would remain the primary source of marijuana for Americans.

Operation Intercept was launched at 2:30 P.m. Pacific Daylight Time on Sunday, September 21, 1969, and abandoned on October 11–– just 20 days later. Felix Belair, Jr., broke the story two weeks in advance, in the  New York Times under a September 8 dateline from Washington: "At the direction of President Nixon Federal enforcement agencies are preparing an all-out drive on the smuggling of drugs into the United States from Mexico. Details of the drive... are being kept a closely guarded secret pending a joint statement later this week by the Secretary of the Treasury and the Attorney General. In personnel and equipment it will be the nation's largest peacetime search and seizure operation by civil authorities." 1 So important was the drive that President Nixon had discussed it at his September 8 meeting with President Gustavo Diaz Ordaz of Mexico. "On this side of the border pursuit planes and some motor torpedo boats will be employed for the first time. Additional observation planes will be placed at the disposal of a strengthened border patrol." Operation Intercept was to be concerned partly with heroin and other drugs–– but primary emphasis was to be placed on marijuana, the bulkiest of the drugs commonly smuggled and therefore the easiest to intercept.

The drive to close the American border was strategically timed for the September 1969 marijuana harvest. The American marijuana supply was already far short of the demand, and the closure was intended to intensify the shortage.

"Pot began to be scarce in June [1969]," Peggy J. Murrell explained in the,  Wall Street Journal for September 11, 1969, "when Mexico started cracking down on shipments of the weed smuggled into the U.S." 2 A college sophomore named Frank, vacationing in New York City's East Village, was quoted as saying: "Nobody can get any grass. After all this damned LSD, speed, and mescaline that's going around, it sure would be great to act back to some nice, soft pot." Miss Murrell then explained: 

"Frank had intended to stock up on marijuana in New York and take it to his friends at college, but the 'pot drought' has left him emptyhanded. 'It's really awful,' he complains. 'What will I tell the kids?' "

A  Wall Street Journal reporter had interviewed Larry Katz, head of the justice Department's Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs in San Diego, who explained that the summer marijuana shortage started in Mexico "because of a drought and a killing. Lack of summer rains thinned the grass [marijuana] crop. Then a Mexican official who had ordered the burning of 50 acres of what was left, was shot and killed.... As a result of the killing, martial law has been declared. They have moved in troops for a house-to-house search throughout the state (of Sinaloa) and every road leading out of Mexico is heavily guarded. The Mexican government now maintains squads that constantly destroy marijuana wherever they find it." 3

Though the  Wall Street Journal failed to mention it, the burgeoning demand for marijuana on the part of a rapidly growing mass of users was also no doubt a major factor in the midsummer 1969 "pot shortage." Supplies were lagging far behind demand–– at least temporarily.

"Far from rejoicing at the marijuana shortage," Miss Murrell's  Wall Street Journal dispatch continued, "some narcotics officials are now afraid that pot smokers may switch to other, more dangerous routes to euphoria." 4 One of these officials was William Durkin, head of the New York Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, who was quoted as saying: "Youthful drug experimenters, if they can't get one kind of drug, will look for something else."

A twenty-one-year-old Radcliffe College senior interviewed by Miss Murrell emphatically confirmed this official view. "I really didn't want to try acid (LSD) before," she was quoted as saying. "But there's no grass around, so when somebody offered me some (LSD), I figured, 'What the hell.' I didn't freak out or anything, so I've been tripping [taking LSD] ever since."

"The objective of the [Operation Intercept] program," Secretary of the Treasury David M. Kennedy and Attorney General John N. Mitchell declared in a joint statement released at precisely 2:30 P.m. on Sunday, September 21, 1969, "is to reduce the volume of narcotics, marijuana, and dangerous drugs which are smuggled into the United States from Mexico." 5 The statement added that "more than 80 percent of the marijuana smoked in the United States" entered the country illegally from Mexico. If this 80 percent could be cut off, all would be well. That, at least, was the official hope.

Traffic at the border "was backed up for more than two and a half miles within an hour after Operation Intercept began," Felix Belair, Jr., of the  New York Times reported from San Ysidro, California, on September 21. "And as the usual Sunday exodus from the Tijuana bullfight and racetrack approached the border station in late afternoon, traffic was backed up for six miles" 6 in the border dust and heat. No doubt the officials who planned Operation Intercept had had this peak traffic flow in mind when they set 2:30 P.m. on Sunday afternoon as H-hour. By then a maximum number of Americans would have entered Mexico for the afternoon, and would be caught in the operation en route home.

Halted motorists "expressed their feeling in the classical manner" by blowing their horns. "They're playing our song," a customs agent remarked.

Similar scenes, the Times dispatch continued, were "being enacted at the 30 other border-crossing stations along the 2,500-mile-long border between the two countries. In between, special radar installations have been set up by the Federal Aviation Administration to enable waiting customs agents to detect any attempt to cross the border unobserved. 

Military pursuit planes borrowed from the Air Force were poised to chase any aircraft that failed to file a pre-flight plan before heading across the border.

The surveillance network was spread out to sea, with Navy boats plying the Gulf of Mexico and a variety of patrol craft in coastal waters. The "intensified inspection of vehicles and persons crossing the border" was in effect also at the 27 airports at which international flights are authorized to land. 7 

"Despite complaints about zealous inspectors peeking into the purses and lunchboxes of school children and forcing travelers to strip for personal searches, the United States said today that it has been successful in its Mexican-border crackdown on drug smuggling," 8 said the lead on an Associated Press dispatch from Los Angeles on the eighth day of the operation. Although only small quantities of drugs bad been seized during the week, a federal spokesman was quoted as saying: "We're measuring our success not by the quantity of seizures made but by the price of marijuana, heroin, and other drugs on the market. It is raising their cost beyond the means of most young people in America.

"We're positive we're stopping narcotics and dangerous drugs from coming into this country. No large seizures have been made since Intercept was launched last Sunday, because obviously the big smugglers have gotten the word." Obviously the small smugglers had also gotten the word. "We know we're succeeding," the federal spokesman continued, "therefore we feel that most Americans will agree it is worth our effort, the manpower and expense involved." The  New York Daily News ran the dispatch under the headline "GRASS CURTAIN A SUCCESS."

As might be expected, however, Operation Intercept engendered a number of protests. The earliest of these came from along both sides of the border.

"In the 30 twin cities that straddle the United States-Mexican border from here to the Gulf," Mr. Belair of the  New York Times again reported from San Ysidro on the third day of the operation, "the government's drive on marijuana smuggling has become one of the hottest issues since Pancho Villa raided frontier towns.

Commerce and tourism are grinding slowly to a halt. Retail business on the American side has dropped more than 50 percent. And with no relief in sight, the merchants are up in arms because Mexican customers won't waste two to four hours waiting to go through customs inspection.

It's the same in the cities and towns on the Mexican side that depend on weekend tourists and commuter shoppers.......

Absenteeism is rampant among Mexican..... workers with permits that allow them to live in Mexico and work in the United States. Mexican school children attending public and private schools in the United States have been showing up two to three hours late or don't show up at all....

The impact of the operation hit like a windstorm at Chula Vista, the nearest shopping center to this major gateway.... Chula Vista business establishments count on Mexican customers for about 70 percent of their trade. Yesterday, they catered to a handful of local customers. 9 

On the second day of Operation Intercept, the dispatch continued, "the United Statcs-Mexican Border Cities Association decided to do something about it. It beaan organizing a protest, urging its 30 twin city members to get in touch with their Congressmen, governors, and mayors and demand a modification...." The head of the association also sent telegrams to all affiliated chambers of commerce on the United States side, warning that "time is short, and the need for action immediate." In a telephone interview he added: "The economic life's blood of these communities is based on a free flow of vehicular and pedestrian traffic in both directions. Disrupt that flow, and the economy dies, people are thrown out of work and the communities will become ghost towns...."

On the seventh day of the operation, the  New York Times reported from Mexico City:

Indignation mounted here yesterday in the press and business and government circles against the measures adopted by the United States in an antinarcotics drive on the Mexican border.

"Humiliating Mexicans" was the banner headline published by La Prensa, one of the largest newspapers in the country. It emphasized a theme that was echoed in many other dailies.

In the Chamber of Deputies, representatives of all parties protested vigorously against Operation Intercept on the border as a program that "damages the dignity of Mexicans and constitutes an unfriendly act...." 

The National Confederation of Chambers of Commerce here termed the operation "an absurd and exaggerated program" for the meager results it has produced. 10

President Diaz of Mexico, who in early September had paid a courtesy visit to Washington during which his relations with President Nixon bad been cordial, in early October personally denounced Operation Intercept as "a bureaucratic error" that had "raised a wall of suspicion between Mexico and the United States." 11

The protest spread from Mexico to other Latin American countries. An ambassador from one such country, stationed in Mexico City, told a reporter: "It is the old story of United States policy decisions that affect a Latin-American country profoundly being taken for domestic political reasons without consultation or consideration." 12 Another ambassador likened Operation Intercept to the United States military intervention in the Dominican Republic in 1965.

Prior to Operation Intercept, border inspectors worked on a schedule that allowed them on the average one minute per vehicle crossing the border. During Operation Intercept, this quota was increased to an average of two or three minutes per vehicle–– hardly enough for a really thorough search. Further extending the duration of searches, of course, would have further extended the delays and the lines of cars.

Some persons desiring to enter the United States were required to strip to the skin for a personal inspection. Official reports revealed that during the first week of Operation Intercept 1,824 border crossers were stripped and searched. This left some 1,978,000 persons who had crossed the border with only a superficial search or none at all. Most of the 1,824 "skin searches," incidentally, proved fruitless; there were only 33 arrests along the border during the week. 13

"Ten days of relentless warfare on the smuggling of marijuana and dangerous drugs across the Mexican border has convinced United States enforcement officials of the futility of trying to dry up the illicit traffic with currently available money, manpower, and equipment," 14 Mr. Belair reported from San Ysidro on October 1. At that time nearly 2,000 agents and inspectors, including many transferred to the border from other posts, were at work in the operation.

"Attempts to get the drugs across border highway crossings concealed in motor vehicles have almost ceased. But enforcement officials say that illegal air traffic continues to move through the Mohawk Valley in Arizona, Laredo, Texas, and the rugged approaches to El Centro and San Diego, Calif....

"Meanwhile, with supplies of marijuana and dangerous drugs piling up south of the border as a result of the drive on land, Mexican distributors are changing smuggling methods. Checked at the normal crossing points, they have started to probe the fences along remote mountain trails and in the desolate flatlands where Mexican roads parallel the border by fewer than 100 yards." An undetermined amount of marijuana and other drugs was also being smuggled in by plane despite newly installed FAA radar equipment and Air Force intercept planes lent for the operation. "Recently positioned radar installations... showed the blips of intruding aircraft from the south but the blips faded from scanning screens as the planes dropped between mountain ranges and canyon corridors or passed beyond range of the truck mounted sensors." * 16

* This discovery by drug smugglers of the vulnerability of the United States Mexican border to aerial intrusion was to have disastrous aftereffects. Long after Operation Intercept itself was discontinued, aerial smugglers continued to use the techniques pioneered in September 1969.

"They fly low and slow, by the light of the moon, and make $50,000 a night," Robert Lindsey reported in the  New York Times in November 1971." 15

"They use some private planes and old military transports and land on deserted airstrips or sagebrush-covered desert. Their cargo is marijuana, cocaine and heroin.

"Along the sparsely settled frontier that divides the United States and Mexico, airborne drug-runners are doing a booming business, and Federal agents say they do not know how to stop them.

"On most nights, the agents estimate, at least 10 planes cross the border with marijuana and other drugs. On rare occasions, the smugglers are caught by United States agents flying their own planes. But usually they land unnoticed...."

"Anybody who knows how to fly can get into the business and make a lot of money...... one customs agent was quoted as saying; and an official of the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs added: "They're developing their own air force, and it's getting bigger and bigger."

Most of the planes used were small, but a Department of justice official noted that recently (November 1971), "a lot of them are starting to use bigger planes–– DC-3's, surplus military transports, turbo-prop executive planes, and we have our eye on one group that has a Constellation."

A Constellation can carry twenty tons of cargo–– enough to supply the entire United States heroin market for three or four years with the fruits of a single flight.

Despite the fact that marijuana weighs far more than heroin per dose and sells for far less, it, too, can be profitably smuggled by air. The Department of justice official told reporter Lindsey bow "in the interior of Mexico, you can buy weed [marijuana] for as low as $2 a brick [2.2 pounds], but if you don't know your way around, you will probably have to pay closer to $30. It doesn't take a very big plane to fly 500 bricks if you take out the seats and strip it down.... 

"Say [a smuggler] buys it for $30 and sells it in the states for $130; that's a profit on 500 bricks of $50,000 for a night's work." At $130 per brick or kilogram, moreover, the cost per half-gram marijuana cigarette works out at 6.5 cents-hardly an exorbitant price, even at wholesale.

On October 8, 1969, a delegation of Mexican officials beaded by Mexican Attorney General David Rodriguez conferred in Washington with a delegation of American officials headed by United States Attorney General Mitchell. As late as the afternoon of October 9, after two full days of these talks, Mr. Belair reported from Washington to the  New York Times that "the United States has rejected a Mexican government appeal for a prompt termination of Operation Intercept.... A source close to the conferees said the United States had no intention of calling off the drive or of substantially modifying border inspections......" 17

But the next day, Operation Intercept was called off.

"In a dramatic overnight reversal of position," Mr. Belair announced under an October 10 dateline, "the United States bowed today to Mexican demands and ordered a strategic retreat in its war on the smuggling of marijuana and dangerous drugs into this country.

"A joint statement by representatives of both Governments after three days of conferences on Operation Intercept said it bad been superseded by Operation Cooperation. It added that the United States would 'adjust' its border inspection procedures 'to eliminate unnecessary inconvenience, delay and irritation.'

"Precisely what happened to cause the about-face by United States delegates was not immediately clear and the Federal enforcement officials who are most concerned with the problem said they were 'too sick to talk about it."' Mr. Belair added, however, that State Department officials had first proposed the retreat, that justice Department officials had agreed; "this left the Treasury Department contingent under Assistant Secretary Eugene T. Rossides standing alone without White House support.... As the showdown approached today, the White House, was advised of the pending decision but decided against any direct involvement." 18 Traffic across the border began flowing freely again on the next day–– Saturday, October 11.

"An immediate problem for enforcement officials," Mr. Belair added, was how to soften the impact of today's retreat on the morale of customs agents and inspectors and members of the Border Patrol who have been working 12 and 14 hours a day to make Operation Intercept a success."

While primary responsibility for ending Operation Intercept was commonly attributed to the protest from Mexico, from the rest of Latin America, and from American border businessmen and their Congressmen, the statistics of drugs seized may also have played a role. During the year ending June 30, 1969, United States customs officials had seized 57,164 pounds of marijuana–– about 150 pounds per day. During the three weeks of Operation Intercept, they bad seized 3,202 pounds of marijuana–– about the same amount per day. 19 Operation Intercept had enormously inflated marijuana publicity, but had not increased marijuana seizures. How much smuggling increased elsewhere as a result of the transfer of customs officials and narcotics agents to the Mexican border is not known.

A statement by then Deputy Attorney General Richard G. Kleindienst and Assistant Secretary of the Treasury Eugene T. Rossides, released by the United States Department of justice twelve days after the termination of Operation Intercept, claimed a modest success. It described marijuana as "unavailable in Miami and almost unavailable in New York," as well as "almost unavailable at Yale, Harvard and the University of California [Berkeley and Los Angeles]. A similar or even more tight supply condition exists at the University of Chicago, Rice Institute, Oklahoma University, Southern Methodist University and Northwestern University." 20

This announcement from Washington evoked a bitter retort from Professor Charles R. Beye, chairman of the classics department at Boston University, who declared in a letter to the editor of the  New York Times: 

In their elation at having made marijuana scarcer on our college campuses, could the Federal narcotics agents ponder for a moment the ugly repercussions of their campaign? 

Many dealers responding to this scarcity are blending in all kinds of other ingredients to provide strange psychic effects neither sought nor planned. The high price of marijuana is moving the high school crowd into some really weird trip-causing agents, of which glue is only the mildest.

The intensive police pressure reinforces the sense of being criminal and thus antisocial. Then, too, instead of your friendly student dealers, older men suspiciously criminal-looking, are beginning to push the pot; obviously the student amateurs are being closed out of the increasingly profitable marijuana business and organized crime is being given another avenue of exploitation.

As someone who spends a great deal of time with the young I must say that marijuana is here to stay. As a father I can only hope that these hypocritical, viciously unnatural laws and the people who enforce them are removed before an entire generation is perverted morally and corrupted physically. 21 

Professor Beye's concern that marijuana users deprived of marijuana might shift to other substances was confirmed in some detail in a study of what actually happened among Los Angeles marijuana smokers during Operation Intercept. The study was undertaken by two graduate students in psychology at the University of California at Los Angeles, Kay Jamison and Steven Rosenblatt, in collaboration with Dr. William H. McGlothlin of the UCLA psychology department. 22 Questionnaire returns were secured in this project from 478 UCLA undergraduate and graduate students, and from 116 patients attending the Los Angeles Free Clinic. The great majority of both the students and clinic patients were marijuana smokers who had smoked marijuana ten or more times.

One question which the study sought to answer was whether there had actually been a marijuana shortage before and during Operation Intercept–– a shortage sufficient to curtail marijuana use. Deputy Attorney General Kleindienst and Assistant Secretary of the Treasury Rossides, it will be recalled, had announced on October 23 that marijuana was "almost unavailable" at UCLA. The study did not bear this out. "Of those using marijuana ten or more times," the Los Angeles group reported, 44 percent of the students and 51 percent of patients reported that their frequency of marijuana use was below normal at some time between May and October 1969, as a consequence of the unavailability of marijuana." 23 The other half of the respondents were able to go right on smoking marijuana at their customary frequency despite the shortage that preceded Operation Intercept and despite Operation Intercept itself.

The respondents were also asked how much they bad been paying for marijuana in May 1969, and bow much in October 1969. The responses, when averaged, worked out to $10.13 per ounce in May and to $11.87 per ounce in October. About 60 half-gram marijuana cigarettes can be made from one ounce of marijuana. Thus the price as reported by Los Angeles smokers rose from about 16.9 cents per marijuana cigarette in May to about 19.8 cents in October. 24

Finally, the Los Angeles study sought to determine how the marijuana shortage affected the consumption of other drugs. "Of those reporting a shortage of marijuana," the UCLA researchers noted, "76 percent of students and 84 percent of patients reported that they increased their consumption of one or more other drugs (including alcohol) because of the unavailability of marijuana." 25 Here are the drugs to which these respondents turned as a result of the marijuana shortage. 26 

Drug
Students
(Percentage)
Free Clinic
(Percentage)
 
Male
Female
Male
Female
 
(N = 56)
(N = 30)
(N = 24)
(N = 25)
Hashish
52
37
54
44
Alcohol
55
23
50
48
Sedatives
9
10
29
24
Stimulants
11
7
21
16
LSD
16
7
50
48
Other Strong Hallucinogens
23
13
37
28
Opiates or Cocaine
2
3
25
24

 

The temporary shortage of Mexican marijuana led to a marked increase in the importation into the United States of highly potent marijuana from Vietnam. Some of it was mailed home through GI channels; far larger amounts were brought home by military personnel returning from the war. San Francisco observers reported a flood of Vietnamese marijuana on the market immediately following the docking of each homebound troopship. There were few prosecutions, however–– perhaps because officials did not welcome the political repercussions which might follow the large-scale criminal prosecution of veterans freshly returned from war. 

Another effect of Operation Intercept was to open the United States for the first time to the large-scale importation of North African and Near Eastern hashish. There is a delicate balance between marijuana prices and hashish prices. Hashish is more costly to produce because it takes much more labor during the brief harvest period–– but it is easier to smuggle because a comparable dose weighs only one-fifth to one-eighth as much. Trivial amounts of hashish had long been available in the United States. The tight marijuana supply before and during Operation Intercept triggered a large-scale increase in hashish smuggling.

Numerous instances were cited in newspaper dispatches before, during, and after Operation Intercept: For example, the  New York Times reported from Washington, D.C., on August 17, 1969, that "the smuggling of hashish, a concentrated form of marijuana, has sharply increased," according to Myles J. Ambrose, then Bureau of Customs Commissioner. Seizures for the year ending June 30, 1969, totaled 623 pounds–– "up from 311 pounds the previous year. Only about 70 pounds bad been seized in 1966 and 1967." Marijuana seizures did not increase. An assistant commissioner of customs cited three reasons for the rise in hashish smuggling: it is far less bulky than marijuana, it is highly potent, and it appeals to the "hippie type" of tourist. 27

On October 6, 1969, Sydney H. Schanberg reported in the  New York Times from Srinagar, Kashmir, that Kashmiri hashish formerly went mostly to the Middle East. "But now," he quoted the local chief of police as saying, "there is a new market–– Europe and America. And therefore the price has gone very high." 28

On October 10, 1969, Dana Adams Schmidt reported in the  New York Times from Beirut, Lebanon, that "eleven Americans are in prison in Lebanon on charges of using or trafficking in hashish." He went on to explain: "Two pounds of hashish selling here for $40 to $80 can be resold in the United States for that amount an ounce." 29

The Burlington, Vermont,  Free Press reported on March 17, 1970, that hashish purchased for $3,000 in Ibiza, Spain, and alleged to be worth $350,000 in the United States market had been seized in Vermont after it had been shipped by freight from Ibiza to Casablanca, to Marseilles, to St. Thomas, Ontario, to Tonawanda, New York, and then to Rutland and Plainfield, Vermont. 30

Finally, the marijuana shortage induced many industrious people to spend more time harvesting domestic "weed" marijuana, growing throughout the United States.

Under ordinary circumstances, with high-quality Mexican marijuana available at moderate prices, there is relatively little incentive to harvest the domestic weed supply. The hourly wage rate is much higher in the United States than in Mexico, and harvesting marijuana takes time. When prices rise and supplies become scarce, however, people take to the harvest fields in large numbers, Edward B. Zuckerman described the marijuana-harvesting process in a dispatch from North Judson, Indiana, published in the  Wall Street Journal of August 20, 1969: 

The elderly farmer escorts a visitor around his prosperous-looking farm near this quiet northern Indiana town. There's the corn field, he says, and there's the potatoes. And over there is the marijuana.

The farmer hastens to point out that he doesn't cultivate the marijuana, it just grows wild. Indeed, he considers it a headache. "It gets so thick around my storage lot that I have to pay good money to spray it so I can find my machinery," he says. "Then, I'm always shooing away people who come on my land to pick the stuff."

The farm is a typical one in this lush farming area not far from Chicago. The hardy marijuana plant... grows in weedlike abundance along roads and drainage ditches here. It's difficult and expensive to kill, and it has made the region something of a mecca for enterprising devotees... who drive to the farmlands to help themselves rather than pay the $15 to $20 an ounce that processed marijuana brings on the clandestine market. 

"We've arrested every type of individual–– white, colored, male, female, young and old–– a real cross-section of the population," says Sgt. Harry Young of the Indiana State Police, whose members regularly inspect cars parked along the roads near here....

Marijuana came to North Judson, as well as to other areas of the Midwest where it grows in abundance, as the upright and respectable hemp plant.... Mills that converted the tough fibers of the plant's stalk into rope used to dot the Midwest.... Hemp cultivation has all but ceased in the U.S. but the plant hangs on. "It's extremely hardy and adaptable we've seen it growing in sandy soil and in the most swampy areas," says University of Illinois botanist Alan W. Haney. "It's also very bard to get rid of. It takes a high concentration of poison to do the job. I've seen plants that.wilted after being sprayed, but sprang back within two weeks." 31 

By early November 1969, the marijuana famine was over–– in considerable part as a result of increased harvest of the domestic American " weed" supply. Reporter John Kifner supplied the details in a dispatch from Lawrence, Kansas, which appeared in the  New York Times for November 7, 1969, less than a month after the abandonment of Operation Intercept: 

Only a few of the plants–– 8 to 10 feet tall with clusters of seven sharply serrated leaves–– are still green. Most of the stalks are brown and withering after the first frosts.

Some harvesters, who contend that a field-dried crop yields the best product, are still gathering tops and leaves. 

But much of the work–– the hurried chopping under the hot sun, the heaving of armsful of plants into automobile trunks and the stumbling around in the dark with flashlights and pillowcases to be filled–– has been done.

The last crop is hanging, upside down so the precious sap can flow into the leaves, in garages, backyards and dormitories waiting to be dried and processed. The harvesters are settling back and lighting up to enjoy the fruits of their labors. 

The crop is marijuana, and this has been a good growing year, particularly here in the flat Middle Western plains, where the Cannabis sativa plant grows wild along the edges of fields, river banks and railroad tracks, and sometimes in cultivated plots. 

"The marijuana has been like a super benefit to this community," a student at the University of Kansas said with a grin. "A lot of people have got new motorcycles and things because of it."

The director of the Kansas Department of Agriculture's Noxious Weeds Division reported that there were 52,050 acres of marijuana in the state in 1968–– the figure is probably higher this year. The plant is also growing in wild profusion throughout Nebraska, Iowa and Illinois. 

It is a strong and hardy plant that resists efforts at eradication by fire or chemicals, to the delight of the young and the distress of the law enforcement officials and politicians,... 

In Indiana, farmers complain of the difficulty of clearing the plant from the edges of their fields. According to underground sources, an elderly farmer in the Champaign-Urbana area, near the University of Illinois, has simply let a field go to marijuana. 

He sits in his farmhouse with field glasses, these sources say, waiting for youths to come and pick the crop. Then he calls the police and collects an informer's fee. 

While the Middle West is the main center for wild marijuana, the plant is being harvested more and more secretly in small cultivated patches throughout the country. 

In Vermont, the state police say there are vast quantities of marijuana growing wild in the Champlain Valley and being regularly harvested at night.

Policemen destroyed tons of marijuana over the summer months, but the crop was too big for the available manpower and equipment....

Detective Cpl. William Chilton said he believed the quality of Vermont marijuana was almost as good as that of most of the Mexican varieties.

There are scattered fields throughout Georgia, including a patch in the Okefenokee Swamp, and Joseph Weldy, the state's chief drug inspector, said he expected to find "a lot of marijuana fields in the spring."

In Austin, Tex., marijuana has been found growing on the State Capitol grounds and at the municipal golf course. Crafty planters frequently sow their crop on public ground, where it will be well-tended by unsuspecting gardeners.

In Oregon, state agents had 3,000 plants under surveillance in the Cornelius Pass west of Portland last August. They were thwarted when an industrious Washington County lawman destroyed the plants with chemicals. There was a lack of communication, officials said. 

Law enforcement and underground sources agree that the domestic marijuana harvest this summer and fall was probably the biggest yet. It was centered largely in the Middle West and particularly in Kansas.

The reasons for this, they agreed, are the shortage of Mexican marijuana, caused by Operation Intercept and other American pressures on the Mexican Government, and the rapidly increasing numbers of marijuana smokers.

The harvesting season runs generally from July to late October, with September the prime time. Throughout these months, hundreds of young people have been busily working in isolated fields, and rural sheriffs have been just as busily responding to calls from farmers reporting "a bunch of hippies in the fields" acting strangely.

Melwyn Purdy, an agent of the campus Bureau of Investigation here who is assigned to narcotics problems said there were 175 arrests for marijuana harvesting in this state since July 4. Last year, there had been about 40 arrests.

He described those arrested as "mostly young subjects, of college age with no criminal background."

Some of those arrested, Mr. Purdy said, bad road maps or hand-sketched charts showing where patches of marijuana might be found. Some of the areas of heaviest growth, he added, are along the Republican River in north central Kansas and in the eastern part of the state.

Gov. Robert Docking has expressed alarm at the situation, particularly at the possibility that organized crime might be moving into Kansas. Farmers, however, are not enthusiastic about the Governor's plan to put marijuana under the weed control program since they would have to undergo the trouble of eradicating it from their own lands. Some conservationists and ecologists have expressed alarm at the potential destruction of ground cover.

A more powerful lobby–– hunters and sportsmen–– is also worried about the program. Quail feed on marijuana seeds, and organized hunters fear that a favorite quarry will be reduced in number....

The increase in the marijuana market has led to shady business practices. Kansas marijuana is being wrapped in Mexican newspapers and sent to California masquerading as the imported variety.

Most smokers seem to feel that Kansas marijuana is better than none at all, so the young people in and around Lawrence seem particularly happy about this year's crop. 32

Another report, perhaps apocryphal, says that there was too much marijuana growing in Kansas in 1969; hence "the professional pot harvesters there have formed an association in violation of the Sherman AntiTrust Act to maintain price levels by destroying part of the crop." 33 

The United States House of Representatives' Select Committee on Crime in the fall of 1969 took an interest in this harvesting of domestic weed marijuana to supplement and perhaps replace imported Mexican marijuana. One witness it called was Lieutenant Wayne F. Rowe of the Nebraska State Highway Patrol; Lieutenant Rowe was questioned by Larry Reida, the Select Committee's associate chief counsel, and by Congressmen Claude Pepper of Florida, the committee chairman, and Robert V. Denney of Nebraska. 

Mr. Reida. Mr. Rowe, could you make an estimate, based on your information and experience in the field of marijuana control for the last couple of years, as to the number of acres of marijuana in Nebraska?

Mr. Rowe. No, sir, I couldn't make this estimate. We had a discussion group yesterday. The experts said it was considerable.

Mr. Reida. We are talking about thousands of acres, right?

Mr. Rowe. Right. 

Mr. Denney. We heard one estimate of 156,000 acres in Nebraska, right?

Mr. Denney. Yes, we did.

Mr. Reida. As a matter of fact, it grows in clumps; you don't have a 100-acre field of marijuana.

Mr. Rowe. No, sir. You may find one plant on an acre and in other fields the entire field would be infested.

This "weed" marijuana, Lieutenant Rowe continued, was attracting "hempleggers" from all over the country: 

Now, last year was the first year that we had a great deal of experience with marijuana harvesters coming in from out of State. In the year of 1968 we documented 40 arrests for marijuana harvesting. These were all people from out of State.

To date in 1969 we have documented 81 arrests of people from outside of Nebraska who have come in to harvest the marijuana that is growing here. This represents over a 100-percent increase over last year.

Mr. Pepper. How many arrests have you made?

Mr. Rowe. I have a breakdown in States: 32 arrests of California residents, six arrests of New York residents, six arrests of Massachusetts residents, five New Mexico, five from Washington, four from Virginia, three from Pennsylvania, three from Wyoming, three from Colorado, two from Michigan, two from Kansas, two from Utah, one from Ohio, one from Wisconsin, one from Arizona, one from Iowa, one from Oregon, one from Idaho, one from Montana, and one from Oklahoma....

Mr. Pepper. Did you notice that those arrests increased as the supply of marijuana coming into this country was diminished?

Mr. Rowe. Yes, sir. The spring crop of marijuana in Mexico, * as I understand it, was bad because of the weather. They were unable to dry it out. We also understand from the people whom we have apprehended that Mexican marijuana is not available in supply as is demanded by the present market.

* In Mexico, the same field may yield three or even four crops of marijuana per year.

Mr. Pepper. From that experience, would you anticipate that if we are successful in our effort to diminish the available quantity of marijuana in other parts of the country, there will be greater effort to get it from Nebraska and Iowa than there is today? 

Mr. Rowe. Yes, sir, this will be what will happen. By coming to Nebraska they eliminate the dangers of crossing an international border. 34

The way in which Nebraskan and other Midwestern marijuana is subsequently distributed throughout the United States was indicated in an Associated Press dispatch from Freeport, Long Island, New York, dated October 4, 1970:

Five men were arrested here today in a raid in which police confiscated 300 pounds of marijuana said to be worth $600,000 at retail.

According to Nassau County and Freeport police, three of the men had driven from California in a panel truck, stopping on the way in Frank, Neb., to harvest a crop of marijuana they knew was growing in an open field there. Using machetes, the men cut enough marijuana to fill 15 duffle bags, the police said. 35

The three were identified as a twenty-four-year-old unemployed highschool teacher, a twenty-four-year-old professor at an unaccredited California college, and a twenty-eight-year-old student at a state university.

The suggestion that 300 pounds of weed marijuana, requiring only a machete for harvesting and a panel truck for transportation, would yield $600,000 for a few days' work was obviously grossly exaggerated–– but the influence of such police estimates in attracting additional entrepreneurs to marijuana harvesting and distribution should not be underestimated.

Clandestine marijuana plantations have also made their appearance on a modest scale.  

Not only is clandestine pot farming being carried on all over the country, [columnist Nicholas von Hoffman reported in the Washington Post] but many people are at work developing higher yields, more potent strains so that good quality grass should be increasingly available at moderate prices. In addition to the thousands who're in this new industry for profit, there appears to be tens of thousands who grow pot at home for their own use. It's an indomitably hardy vegetable that grows anywhere, even in closets or basements People plant it [indoors] in flower pots, train an electric light on it and wait for the high harvest. 36

Mr. Zuckerman's August 1969 dispatch to the  Wall Street Journal, quoted earlier, similarly reported that "some intrepid users have taken to growing the stuff on their own." He cited as an example a twenty-year-old college student who lived with his family in a Detroit suburb and who had cultivated a small crop in his family's garden each summer since he was seventeen.

"Every year I tell my mother I'm growing gourds, and every year when there aren't any gourds I tell her that I planted them late or something," the student was quoted as saying. He worried a bit when he saw his father in the marijuana patch–– "but it was all right. He'd very considerately put stakes on my plants and tied them for Support." 37

Once the plants are grown and harvested, the  Wall Street Journal dispatch continued, this student "speeds the drying process by tying his leaves in a pillowcase and running them through the clothes dryer." The student was quoted as explaining: "At the end of the summer, you'll usually find two or three of my friends waiting for their pillowcases" at a nearby launderette. This home-grown marijuana development resembles in several respects the home fermenting of grapes, the home brewing of beer, and the manufacture of gin in home bathtubs during Prohibition (1920-1933).

"Other amateurs," the  Wall Street Journal added, "go in for marijuana cultivation in a bigger way. A hip young farmer in upstate New York, where wild marijuana is scarce and local police are less vigilant, is raising 500 plants for his friends in New York City. 'Why should they pay for the stuff, when I can grow it so easily?' he says."

An observer living in one New England township, formerly an agricultural center, says that marijuana is beginning there to take the place of other cash crops no longer profitable. "The only farms yielding a profit in our entire township are the three marijuana plantations." 38

The chief problem in growing marijuana secretly, either outdoors or indoors, is the excessive height of the plant–– often eight to ten feet at harvest time, and sometimes even higher. This height, of course, is the result of the fact that for so many hundreds of years seed from the tallest plants was selected in order to ensure long hemp fibers. just as clandestine chemists have been turning out drugs in kitchen laboratories, however, so clandestine geneticists and horticulturists are already at work developing a shorter marijuana–– less conspicuous to the police if grown outdoors and taking up less space indoors. Success should be fairly rapid; a marijuana strain growing only three to four feet tall has already been reported in London. 39

Clandestine synthesis of THC is another potential development. A group of young underground chemists in London, indeed, has already succeeded in synthesizing a small quantity of an impure THC, which they proudly smoked in front of BBC television cameras. 40 It is almost certainly the relatively low price and relatively ready availability of natural marijuana and hashish that have to date discouraged further development of clandestine synthetic THC. If prices rise high enough, or marijuana and hashish become scarce enough, that curb on THC synthesis and distribution will no longer function.

 

 Footnotes
Chapter 59

1. New York Times, September 9, 1969.

2. Peggy J. Murrell,  Wall Street Journal, September 11, 1969.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. New York Times, September 22, 1969.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid.

8. New York Daily News, September 29, 1969.

9. New York Times, September 25, 1969.

10. New York Times, September 28, 1969.

11. New York Times, October 10, 1969.

12. New York Times, October 8, 1969.

13. New York Daily News, September 29, 1969,

14. New York Times, October 2, 1969.

15. Robert Lindsey in the  New York Times, November 30, 1971.

16. New York Times, October 2, 1969.

17. New York Times, October 10, 1969.

18. New York Times, October 11, 1969.

19. Robert Berrellez, Associated Press, in the  Reporter Dispatch, White Plains, N.Y., October 1, 1969.

20. New York Times, October 24, 1969.

21. Charles R. Beye, Letter to the Editor,  New York Times, October 30, 1969.

22. W. McGlothlin, K. Jamison, and S. Rosenblatt, "Marijuana and the Use of Other Drugs,"  Nature (London), 228 (December 19, 1970): 1227-1229.

23. Ibid

24. Ibid

25. Ibid

26. Ibid

27. New York Times, August 18, 1969.

28. New York Times, October 6, 1969.

29. New York Times, October 10, 1969.

30. Burlington, Vt.,  Free Press, 'March 17, 1970.

31. Edward B. Zuckerman in the  Wall Street Journal, August 20, 1969.

32. New York Times, November 7, 1969.

33. Nicholas von Hoffman in the  Washington Post Star, August 12, 1970.

34. Crime in America
––  A Mid-America View, Hearings before the Select Committee on Crime, U.S. House of Representatives, 91st Cong., 1st Sess., pursuant to H.R. 17, October 11, 1969, Lincoln, Nebraska (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1969), pp. 165-168.

35.  New York Times, October 6, 1970.

36. Nicholas von Hoffman,  Washington Post Star, August 12, 1970.

37. Edward B. Zuckerman,  Wall Street Journal, August 20, 1969.

38. Personal communication.

39. Personal communication.

40. Personal communication.

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