Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

December 6, 2012

Higher priorities

Prescription epidemic, meth labs more serious problem

For The Independent

ASHLAND — Lest one think this region’s drug problem is mostly limited to the abuse of prescription drugs, law enforcement officers remind area residents the cultivation of marijuana remains a major problem in the mountain regions of Kentucky, West Virginia and Tennessee. Those are the same areas where hundreds have died from prescription drug overdoses.

Federal, state and local law enforcement agencies confiscated more than $1.5 billion worth of marijuana this year in Appalachia. Ed Shemelya, head of marijuana eradication in the Appalachian High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, said aerial spotters guided ground crews to more than 750,000 plants during the 2012 growing season in the mountains of Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia.

The bulk of those pot plants were found in Kentucky, where nearly 430,000 of the marijuana plants were destroyed during the spring, summer and fall growing seasons. That’s far more than double the 192,000 plants confiscated in West Virginia and the more than 147,000 plants in Tennessee.

The Appalachian region, a haven for moonshiners during Prohibition, has a near-perfect climate for marijuana cultivation, plus remote forests that help growers camouflage their crops.

While cultivating marijuana is illegal and remains widespread in this region, the pot problem pales compared to this area’s prescription drug epidemic. As one emergency response professional said, in all of his years of responding to calls, he has yet to have to revive someone suffering from a marijuana overdose, while he has failed to revive dozens who have misused prescription drugs.  While some may steal to get the funds they need to buy some pot, the need for money to feed the prescription drug habits of area addicts is the root cause of the vast majority of crimes in this region. In fact, one prosecutor — Boyd County Commonwealth’s Attorney David Justice — insists virtually all crimes committed in the county are caused by the prescription drug epidemic.

While law enforcement agencies are continuing to stay busy chopping down illegal marijuana plants, public attitudes on pot are changing. Voters in Colorado and Washington on Nov. 6 approved ballot initiatives to legalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana, a move that defies federal law banning marijuana. Meanwhile, a number of other states have legalized the use of marijuana for medical purposes.

Here in Kentucky, three of the top elected Republicans in the state — U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, U.S. Rep. Thomas Massie and Kentucky Agricultural Commissioner James Comer — have become some of the nation’s leading proponents of repealing a federal law that bans industrial hemp, a first cousin to marijuana. In fact, a bill to legalize industrial hemp became one of the first bills Massie signed on to as a co-sponsor after being sworn into office soon after the Nov. 6 election. 

In supporting lifting the ban on industrial hemp — a move the Kentucky Farm Bureau also supports — Paul, Massie and Comer are opposing many prosecutors and law enforcement officers who say it is nearly impossible to tell industrial hemp from marijuana when growing in a field and legalizing hemp will make it easier to grow pot in the state. 

Maybe so, but ask people who live in eastern Kentucky what the region’s most serious drug problem is and virtually all of them will say it’s the abuse of prescription drugs. Few, if any, will say it’s the growing and/or use of marijuana. Chopping down a marijuana patch can create a little positive publicity for law enforcement officers, but arresting someone for trafficking in prescription pills or for operating a methamphetamine lab can save lives. Our priorities must continue to be fighting the prescription drug epidemic and the growing meth problems in this region.