From up high, weeding out marijuana Police use a helicopter to spot and eradicate cannabis plots. "It's a different green that stands out," said a Pa. official.

Posted: October 12, 2002

When a salesman from Villanova was busted from the air last week, his arrest was made through a federally funded program little-known in the Philadelphia area but very visible in central Pennsylvania and farther west.

State police, flying in a Pennsylvania National Guard helicopter, were on a mission for the Domestic Cannabis Eradication and Suppression Program, a $13.2 million national effort.

According to court papers, the troopers spotted six marijuana plants growing behind the home of George H. Davis, near the Blue Route, on Sept. 25. Ranging from 4 to 12 feet in height, the plants were near a tomato patch, supported with the same wire mesh holding up his tomatoes and other plants, the troopers said.

Davis, 41, who has no prior arrests, declined to comment at his Oct. 2 arraignment on charges of drug possession, possession with intent to deliver, and possession of drug paraphernalia.

The same day that troopers searched the Davis home, the helicopter crew found 91 plants growing in two unrelated plots in Edgmont Township, Delaware County. About three weeks earlier, 56 plants were spotted in eight locations in Concord and Chadds Ford.

Pennsylvania State Police say no arrests have been made in those cases.

State police Lt. Harold Wilson, head of a nine-county Tactical Narcotic Team in Southeastern Pennsylvania, said the eradication program runs all year long, but the helicopter searches are used only during the growing season, August to October.

"The plants are visible and they stand out like a sore thumb from the air," said Wilson. "In cornfields and wooded areas, they are hidden, but obviously they need sunlight. It's a different green that stands out."

With the first frost not too far off, Wilson said, helicopter use is winding down across the state.

Troopers said Pennsylvania's eradication program, which received $73,000 in federal funds this year, is more likely to uncover marijuana in less populated areas of the state, where forests and cornfields are used by growers to hide the plants.

"West of the Susquehanna, we have a better chance of finding marijuana," said Sgt. Robert Allan, who administers and tracks the program from the state police barracks in Erie. "Even in the Lancaster area, we don't find as much as we do in the central part of the state. If we get around 10,000 plants [in Pennsylvania], it's probably a banner year for us."

The Drug Enforcement Administration began the effort in two states in 1979. It spread to all 50 states by 1985.

In 2001, about 6,400 plants were destroyed in 532 outdoor and indoor plots in Pennsylvania, DEA figures show, with 61 arrests and 12 weapons seized. New Jersey authorities found 1,013 plants in 61 plots, and made 1,627 arrests and confiscated 39 weapons.

September figures for this year have not been tabulated yet, Allan said, but Pennsylvania State Police plucked 421 marijuana plants in July and 1,531 in August.

"We don't find much compared to other states like Kentucky and Tennessee, which harvest upward of several hundred thousand plants," he said. "It's part of the job. . . . Otherwise, there would be more dope on the street," Allan said.

Contact Steve Esack at 610-313-8225 or esacks@phillynews.com.

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