I cannot stress this concept enough: Silence is Golden. Most important for every grower, legal or outlaw—and this bears repeating as often as necessary, especially to yourself—keep your trap shut about where you’re growing your herb. According to police officers themselves, most growing operations that have been busted were exposed by friends of a grower, sometimes by a boastful grower himself.
Discounting unfortunate circumstance for a grower and lucky good fortune for authorities, few marijuana growing operations are actually found out and busted by old-fashioned detective work. Even in places where growing cannabis has been legalized, remember that nearly all crops that are found and stolen are taken by acquaintances of the grower who discovered—or more likely, were shown—the plants they absconded with. Save being prideful until after the harvest, because if you really want to impress fellow pot smokers, the best way to do it is with a fat joint or bowl filled with really potent herb.
Security is a constant concern, because even if growing marijuana is made entirely legals it will always remain a highly stealable commodity—even if grown in your own backyard-and there will always be “reapers” who are willing to reap what you and your hard work have sown. I don’t use or advocate the use of fishing line strung with hooks, “punji boards” made from nail-filled planks, or any of the other booby traps that some for-profit growers use to discourage thieves. For me, no amount of marijuana is worth harming someone, no matter how questionable that person’s genetics or upbringing may be. Besides, trying to protect your plants using violent, hurtful methods that are guaranteed to bring police officers to the site is a poor strategy to start with. Even worse if your victim happens to be a cop, because then you will be actively hunted by vengeful police officers who stick together better than Crips or Bloods, and you’ll remain prosecutable for it until the end of your life.
Rangers at Yellowstone and other parks generally concur that backpackers and hikers rarely venture more than 200 yards off the trail, and being just 300 yards from a trail is almost a guarantee that you won’t see another person. My own experiences as both a pot grower and a professional outdoorsman only confirm that assertion. Many have been the times when I was hunkered down next to mature 6-foot plants while watching tourists playing with their ATVs on a trail not 100 yards distant.
One advantage outdoor pot growers enjoy is the proof of that old axiom that says at least some people can’t see the forest for the trees. The illusion made by this proverb is that a person who finds himself or herself in the midst of an environment unfamiliar to them will often undergo a kind of sensory overload, unable to consciously register all that is present or happening around them. The “busier” or more complex an environment, the less any person’s brain is able to take in, and the effect of overstimulation of the visual cortex is amplified when an observer is in unfamiliar surroundings. Outdoor growers can use this phenomenon to their advantage by planting or transplanting in places where other vegetation helps to clutter the visual landscape and make it difficult for the eye to discern specific shapes.
It is inevitable that any animal or human will fall into regular routines if left unmolested by outside influences for an extended period of time. If those routines take place outside, in a natural environment, any place that is visited regularly is going to be marked with visible trails. No matter how remote or hard to reach your growing site might be, it’s a sure bet that you’ll naturally select the easiest route to it, and before you know it, your footsteps will have crushed and killed most or all of the vegetation that had been growing on that trail. These ribbons of trampled ground are a flag to any peace officer who sees them, whether a cop or a game warden. Even more likely to follow a path to your crop are mushroom hunters, berry pickers, sport hunters, and day hikers just out exploring the countryside.
For me, the easiest solution to the problem of making trails that might be followed by someone I’d rather not have following them has been to establish several—more than three—routes between a well- traveled trail or road and my hidden crop site. Not many people today are skilled in the ways of tracking, and even the best tracker loses a trail from time to time; your best strategy is to ensure that there is as little sign of your passage as possible. Use existing game trails whenever possible to avoid creating new paths that could be noticed by someone who knows the area intimately. A multitude of trails makes any one of them harder to detect, and harder cover should your operation attract unwanted attention from authorities, while also increasing the chance that you will notice ambushers in the area before they see you.
As country singer Steve Earle noted in his song “Copperhead road,” “The DEA’S got a chopper in the air.” In fact, scuttlebutt has it that the recent loosening of legal restrictions on marijuana in several states has at the time of this writing prompted federal agencies to withdraw funding for aerial searches to find marijuana plants. If that new policy holds, it’s good news for growers because few states have much of an air force, and those in preferred pot-farming regions—like Kentucky and Tennessee—have relied on help from Air National Guard and other federal agencies to find cannabis fields. That would leave individual states to search for cannabis crops using their own funding, and at this time it appears that most states are reassessing what it costs them to track down, prosecute, and imprison otherwise law-abiding citizens for merely possessing a dead plant.
But until—and even if—pot is legalized across the board, personal-use growers should not let their guard down. So long as cannabis is illegal to grow, there’s always a chance that some private pilot might fly over at the right altitude, angle, and time to be convinced that there are pot plants there, and then report the coordinates of that observation to authorities. And of course it requires nothing more than a stroke from the right politician’s pen to reallocate all of the monies that have been and will be with- drawn from aerial search operations.
Even if cannabis is completely decriminalized and giant agricultural corporations like Cargill are given the nod to grow pot for commercial sale, there are sure to be limitations on how many plants may be grown or how much processed weight can be possessed. The advantage is that you’ll be able to grow on your own or borrowed private property (planting on public lands will still be illegal); possible disadvantages include being prohibited from growing as large a crop as you’d like, and perhaps being forced to purchase a tax stamp. Selling your pot without having necessary licenses and paying applicable taxes will still be a crime, but now it would be tax evasion.
One federal officer I spoke with told me that everyone in his department had been shown training films depicting the methods and equipment used by America’s best-trained drug cops, the DEA. One film described how Huey and Black Hawk helicopters, painted black for DEA use, had been outfitted with infrared and ultraviolet spectrographic cameras that could cause light wavelengths unique to cannabis plants to stand out among other foliage. The narrator even went on to claim the equipment was so sensitive that it could identify a single plant among wild foliage.
Fortunately for small growers, cannabis-detection equipment on DEA choppers has proved to be considerably less infallible than training films would have us believe. For this argument I present my own experiences of watching black helicopters flying past low and slow while I tended plants that usually averaged 5 to 6 feet tall. The key to avoiding detection from the air, I believe, is keep the size of what must be exposed to a minimum. More plainly, never grow more than three plants in a single location, and keep plots well separated, with about 50 yards between them in most terrain.
Don’t get greedy—as so many do—and grow a crop large enough be seen from space. First, calculate how much bud you’ll need to keep yourself comfortably in smoke for twelve months after you harvest—12 ounces, minimum, for me, which is probably about average. Most healthy 4-foot females will produce between l and 2 ounces of dried buds (often more, especially where growing seasons are longest). To ensure that you’ll have sufficient female plants to provide that amount, estimate that half of your crop will be females.
I was driving along the US-131 highway in the north woods near Boyne Falls, Michigan, one warm summer evening when the unmistakable spoor of marijuana blew through my open window. It is against my principles to steal another grower’s plants (I have been known to pinch a bud as a reward for that integrity, though), but while passing a joint I mentioned the incident to a friend who found five 4-foot plants growing on the far side of a marshy ditch, hidden by willow and dogwood shrubs. The next evening this same unscrupulous person brought the uprooted plants, which had not yet begun to show their gender, to me because he didn’t know how to process green weed. I dried and cured it for him, and even smoked some of it—the plants had never been pruned, and their leaves apparently had only small amounts of the insect repellant THC. I wasn’t happy about the lack of moral character my smoking buddy had displayed by stealing those fine young plants, and my regret was made more poignant by imagining what they might have become in autumn.
The lesson from this story is that pot plants have a strong, far-reaching scent that anyone who’s ever bought a quarter-ounce could recognize from as far off as 200 yards, if the wind was favorable. The plants in my story were in an ideal location, at the side of a busy highway, where probably no one would ever stop their car, jump the wet ditch, and get close enough to differentiate the cannabis plants from the dogwoods, willows, and alders that surrounded their small cleared plot. The grower’s downfall lay in not anticipating the pungent, musky aroma given off by fast-growing cannabis plants from midsummer to winter. There’s a good chance that many summer motorists with open windows failed to recognize the odor, or mistook the musky smell for that of a skunk (pretty common), but I have found marijuana plants more than a few times just by following my nose.
In most places there are prevailing winds that blow from a predictable direction most of the time—in North America, winds are generally from the southeast in summer. Take prevailing winds, which change direction with the seasons, into consideration when planting or transplanting young plants. Even by the end of July, when plants should be approximately 3 feet tall and growing bushy, there will be a distinctive musky scent that is different from the sweeter aroma of flowering males and females. In this stage of growth, until the males begin to flower in early September, their pungent odor is likely to be recognized only by people who’ve grown pot and are familiar with the skunks smell of fast-growing summer cannabis. By mid-september, though, everyone who’s ever smoked from a Baggie will recognize the almost candylike aroma of maturing buds. Always try to site your growing location where prevailing winds are likely to blow scent from your plants away from populated or even frequented areas. A wilderness location is always preferred if you can get water to your plants, but authorities might be surprised at how many cannabis crops have been secretly grown and harvested within sight of a busy road, where virtually none of the speeding cars ever stops to look closely at local vegetation. From early spring, try to be sure the winds will be in your favor even in late autumn, when prevailing winds normally begin reversing direction to blow from the northwest.
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