West Virginias hot, humid and rainy summer this year couldnt have made for better conditions for the under-the-radar marijuana growers who give law enforcement fits in the Mountain State.
Authorities last year confiscated 70,000 plants, and the West Virginia State Police are predicting to at least do that in 2004.
In a state topped by hard-to-get-to mountaintops and slashed by rugged ravines and isolated valleys, the challenge isnt always knowing where the pot is today. The trick is in knowing where it might be cultivated tomorrow.
Or next week.
Or next growing season.
Two West Virginia University geographers are attempting to go one up in the war on drugs by doing just that. Dr. Trevor Harris and Dr. Briane Turley are using known data about marijuana sites across the Mountain Statethen applying Geographic Information System (GIS) technology and fine-tuning it, to project those areas favorable for growing the plant that began its life in the tropics.
GIS is an aerial photograph times 10 or 20.
The technology provides researchers with a three-dimensional view of a targeted site, offering electronic data that takes in everything from the height and slope of mountains and valleys to the mapping of streets and highways.
Researchers are able to electronicallylayerin bits of data, making for a comprehensive study of a site that goes well beyond geography and aerial surveillance.
Harris and Turleys GIS work was bolstered recently with a $221,000 research grant from the Georgia Institute of Technology. Georgia Tech, like WVU , is part of a federal drug-fighting consortium sponsored by the National Guard Bureaus Counter Drug Program, a sweeping, federal effort to rid the U.S. of illegal drugs.
Call it a digital leveling of the playing field, said Harris, a soft-spoken Britisher who heads the Universitys Department of Geology and Geography and is co-director of the State GIS Technical Center.
Were looking at new ways to target those areas that growers might decide to use,Harris said.
In other words, he said, not where the drugs arebut where they arent.
Places, Turley seconded, that will most likely provide future yields of the crops that will be turned into illegal contraband.
Were working on gridding out the places that are attractive to growers just because the conditions are right,said Turley, a two-time Fullbright scholar and geography professor whose professional interests range from rights-of-way to religion.
It might be because the elevation is right,Turley continued,or because the terrain conditions and sunlight are suitable. It might be just because a site is off a back road and down some out-of-the-way hollow.
The duo cant divulge a lot of the particulars of their work because its classified. But they do hope, however, that their efforts speak loud and clear with on-the-record results. They hope to soon be talking about home-grown drug trafficking in the past tense.
Were looking at all these particulars, and are bringing them together,Turley said of the new predictor models.Were looking at weather and elevation. Were looking at water and roads.
For Harris, the technology is both practicaland tactical.
Its not perfect,he said.It can never replace the gut and intuition of a good investigating officer. But when you combine the two, you have a real advantage. Right now we have very limited resources in the war on drugs, so every advantage most definitely counts.