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The police knew they were close. They could smell it.
The resinous reek in the Wasilla workshop could mean only one thing: marijuana. But where was the crop? There were no plants, no grow lights in sight.
Behind a panel in the back wall was a secret room. From there, it was a 10-foot drop by ladder to a concrete bunker. Inside a space the size of a small cabin, 400 green leafy plants sported enough bud, about 12 pounds, to keep dozens of tokers happily glazed for months. Estimated street value: between $36,000 and $48,000.
Alaska's Matanuska and Susitna valleys are home to carrots, potatoes and giant vegetables, all displayed as the public face of northern agriculture. But the undisputed king of Alaska farming, the most profitable crop, is marijuana. A good batch sells, ounce for ounce, for as much as gold.
Over the past two decades the state has done its best to put this homegrown crop out of business. Police and drug agents have arrested growers by the hundreds, ripped up plants by the thousands and burned them in smoky pyres.
Nowhere in Alaska have pot growing and efforts to stop it been as concentrated as in the bedroom communities some 40 miles north of Anchorage.
But despite the nonstop multimillion-dollar effort that draws from state and local police, the National Guard and the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, marijuana farming remains rampant here.
Last year, 211 people in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough were arrested on suspicion of, or charged with, growing or selling marijuana. They were men and women, young and old, married and single, employed and unemployed. Some were first-timers. Some had been busted before. So far this year, another 60 have been busted.
Indoor crop: Bright lights shine on a marijuana growing operation in a crawl space in the Mat-Su Borough.
Courtesy of the National Guard
Statewide, as many as 113 people are in jail on state marijuana offenses. Another 600 are on probation. A quarter of them are in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, where the cases make up nearly a third of the local probation office caseload. Because no agency tracks marijuana cases, those numbers are estimates based on the most common marijuana charge: misconduct involving a controlled substance in the fourth degree.
Some people question whether this expense of time and money is worth the trouble.
"It's absurd," said Ken Goldman, who was Palmer district attorney for 10 years. "We're penalizing people that are average citizens whose only crime for the most part is they enjoy smoking."
Law enforcement officials defend the effort as necessary to keep marijuana use in check. But even they estimate at best they intercept 10 percent of the crop. New pot farms pop up to replace old ones, sometimes even in the same place.
Alaska and marijuana have had a long and curious relationship. It was illegal for years. Then in 1975, for all practical purposes, its use in small amounts became legal. In 1990, residents voted to make it illegal. Two years ago, voters made it legal again for people with certain medical conditions to use marijuana with a doctor's recommendation. A much broader legalization ballot measure failed last week.
Meanwhile, enforcement of marijuana laws, especially aimed at growers, has escalated. Since the early 1980s, when a drug unit was first set up in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, the number of marijuana-grow busts has climbed from a few a year to nearly 100 last year.
Thirty to 40 tips a week pour in, so many that the officers rarely travel to the farther-flung areas unless there are at least two or three locations to check during the trip. It's not worth their time otherwise. They joke about how easy it is to find pot farms. But they know they face an uphill battle.
While no one knows exactly how widespread marijuana growing is in the area, one amazing statistic turned up during the 1996 Big Lake wildfire. Of the 400 buildings and homes burned, 20 of them, 5 percent, contained remnants of marijuana grows, according to trooper Sgt. Tim Bleicher, who headed the local drug team. If that figure is representative, it would make the Matanuska-Susitna Borough home to more than 1,200 pot farms.
Underground horticulture: Above, a National Guard
Counterdrug Support Program member processes marijuana in preparation for an appearance in court.
Courtesy of the National Guard
If anything, that estimate is probably conservative, said trooper Steve Adams, who spent the past two years on the Mat-Su drug team.
"It's everywhere," he said.
Entire cul-de-sacs are populated with people growing marijuana, said Rick Manrique, a Wasilla police officer and former member of the drug team.
Growers say the attraction is simple: easy money. A good crop of Alaska weed, costing relatively little to produce, sells for $3,000 to $4,000 a pound locally. Growers can easily produce 2 to 3 pounds every three months, and some are set up to harvest each month.
An ounce, about enough to fit in a small sandwich bag, can sell for up to $360, said Keith Berggren, who was fined $5,000 and is serving five years' probation for his 60-plant growing operation. That kind of money makes for a better living than Wal-Mart wages.
His growing days ended three years ago when troopers came to his door to serve a warrant on an old DWI case.
"I had just got done blowing a bowl, and I guess I got them high on the landing there," he said, laughing in retrospect. "That's how it all went down the tubes."
Steve Baker's growing operation came to a similarly unexpected end when, in 1996, police officers responded to a domestic violence call at his house. The officers said they smelled pot. Baker thinks otherwise.
"I think somebody told them," he said.
Fruits of the business: An Uzi 9mm automatic weapon with a silencer lies on about $200,000 seized by the Alaska State Troopers in the Willow area in February 1998.
Courtesy of the National Guard
A heavy-equipment operator, Baker said he grew solely for profit. He was making a tax-free $30,000 every three months with an 80-plant grow he kept in a garage next to his house north of Wasilla. He held power costs down by tapping directly into an underground electric line, something that he says is done "very carefully" and never when it's raining. Electric bills for heat and the high-wattage lights are among the biggest expenses for growers.
In addition to being sentenced to three years' probation, Baker was ordered to pay back $20,000 to Matanuska Electric Association for power he stole.
People trying to put growers out of business say the laws are too lenient and should be toughened. Most first-time offenders get probation, community work service and a fine, usually $2,000 a pound.
That's not enough to deter people from growing a crop that can bring in several thousand dollars in a few months, Adams said.
Federal sentences are much stiffer up to five years for a small first-time offense and potential loss of homes and property. But federal authorities take on few marijuana cases in Alaska, typically fewer than a dozen a year.
In the nine months ending Oct. 1, Palmer Assistant District Attorney Jack Smith, who handled only drug cases, never took a marijuana case to trial. People don't fight the charges because they know they'll get little or no jail time, he said.
"It's like a get-out-of-jail-free card," he said.
Lt. Al Storey, who heads the troopers' statewide drug enforcement unit, said his work and that of other officers holds a line on marijuana use in Alaska.
"It's not a war on drugs," he said. "It's a drug enforcement effort. We're not going to win this. What we're trying to do is make society better overall through the enforcement effort."
Victory, he says, is measured in what doesn't happen: People who aren't killed in car accidents, teen-agers who never start smoking pot. He worries about people driving, flying aircraft or operating heavy equipment while high.
Though marijuana is grown all over the state, the Matanuska-Susitna Borough is the center of the pot battle. The area's farming history, relatively cheap land, isolated but road-accessible houses and proximity to the main population base in Anchorage make it attractive to growers, Storey said.
Of the 144 grow busts in Alaska last year, 97 were in the borough. Local pot farms raised 13,611 of the more than 18,000 plants confiscated statewide. Most busts involved a couple hundred plants or fewer. But some were much larger. One turned up more than 1,300.
Adams said he knows of entire streets lined with homes growing pot. He calls one of them Dope Street. Residents of nearly every house have been busted, he said.
"Some places are just constructed ideally for growing marijuana," Adams said. Growing operations are often tucked on back roads in sparsely populated areas and in homes that have built-in crawl spaces and other nooks good for hiding plants, he said. Some people even advertise to growers with a real estate code, he said, selling property described as "secluded," with a "large unfinished basement" or a "generator shed."
Drug officers say they almost never catch the smart growers and rarely catch someone a second time.
Officers joke about the abundance of growers. They acknowledge they are catching only a fraction of them. But there's no question which side they are on in the drug war. They view marijuana as a gateway drug that leads to harder drugs. It makes people lazy and neglectful of their kids. It causes brain damage.
"Why do you think they call it dope?" says Sgt. Bleicher, the gray-haired 42-year-old who heads the unit. He talks of homes without furniture with moldy walls and overflowing toilets, where all the rooms are being used to grow pot and the kids are walking around in dirty diapers.
Adams said he doesn't judge his success by whether he's catching all or even most of the growers.
"If you start worrying about that, how are you going to get up and go to work?"