And some seed fell on stoned ground

The Scotsman and The New Zealand Dominion, December 12 1988

In Chouteau County, Montana, up by the Canadian border, life can be pretty hard. This is grain farming country. Farmers have to fight their way through every season, through the summer droughts and the huge winter snowfalls, and then they have to hope and pray that grain prices pick themselves up off the floor.

Three years ago, Richard Kurth was facing extinction. His 4,500-acre farm had been in his family for most of the century and had made him a wealthy man but after a run of bad luck, he was up to his neck in debt and the local bank had refused to lend him any more. He was at his wits end, until he had an idea: that year, instead of planting grain, he sewed his fields with marijuana.

Kurth, who is 57, brought his wife, Judy, in on the scheme as well as his two sons, his daughter, a son-in-law and a daughter-in-law. Together the family, which had no previous interest in narcotics of any kind, turned the whole Kurth spread into one big marijuana factory. They simply applied modern farming techniques: they had automatic watering in the fields, mechanical harvesters to bring in the crop, and four huge hangars with automatic heating to dry it.

Marijuana prices were high and their income per acre soared. Within two years, they had earned more than $400,000, put the farm back on its feet and repaid $125,000 which they owed the bank. Visitors to the farm, including local sheriff’s deputies, suspected nothing and asked no questions about the long rows of spikey green vegetation. The Kurths continued to play their part in the community and were preparing to pay back a further $125,000 to the bank, when last autumn, someone tipped off the FBI, and the whole family was busted.

In Chouteau County, the Kurths are a prominent family and their arrest was the talk of every town for miles around. But there was a strange reaction to their demise: while the Kurths’ friends and neighbours turned again them and demanded that they be punished harshly, the legal authorities decided to take a gentle line with them.

The district attorney and the trial judge struck a plea bargain with the result that Richard Kurth and his wife, Judy, were jailed for short periods while the rest of the family were given suspended sentences. The Kurths’ former friends were outraged and drew up a petition demanding the removal of the district attorney and complaining that such a mild punishment would only encourage drug trafficking.

The essential ingredients of the Kurth case are being repeated across the United States in other incidents which testify to the most bizarre statistic in the American economy – the largest cash crop in the country is now marijuana.

Richard Kurth is not alone in being attracted to the crop, not as a drug, but as an agricultural proposition. In the same way that many professional criminals have moved from conventional crimes like bank robbery into the more lucrative business of heroin and cocaine, so some ordinary farmers appear to be moving from conventional crops to marijuana.

And Kurth’s community is not alone in finding itself divided over the issue. Perhaps the most interesting feature of this is that the economic appeal of marijuana is beginning to change the balance of the argument so that a lenient approach in the courts seems to be socially constructive while the indignation of people like Richard Kurth’s neighbours now appears to be an irrational moral panic.

In the case of the Kurths, their attorney claimed in court that their bank had always known what crop was being grown out on the Kurth ranch and were happy as long as their money was repaid. In the same way, the taxman moved in after the FBI asking for hundreds of thousands of dollars on the Kurths’ marijuana sales.

Just as South East Asia has its Golden Triangle thick with opium poppies, so now the United States has an Emerald Triangle, centered in northern California, where the economy runs on marijuana. The industry has been growing steadily since the early 1970s when all the people who had gone to San Francisco with flowers in their hair started to head for the hills to escape police activity in the cities.

Like Richard Kurth, they used all the available technology in their work: fertilisers, computer-operated irrigation systems, hydroponic greenhouses which grow plants in soil-free mineral-rich solutions. They succeeded in producing several crops a year, unbroken by winter. By the early 1980s, the marijuana farms stretched across three counties and a town at their centre, Garberville, was acknowledged as the source of the highest grade marijuana in the world.

Five years ago, the state authorities feared that some communities were being taken over by the marijuana economy and set up a Campaign Against Marijuana Planting, CAMP, which sent out teams of armed men to conduct paramilitary raids on suspected farmers. Wearing camouflage and carrying semi-automatic weapons, the CAMP agents swarmed through the Emerald Triangle in low-flying helicopters. They succeeded in capturing 720,000 marijuana plants, worth a total of $1.8 billion. They also set off a revealing backlash.

In order to conduct their business in peace, a lot of the big marijuana farmers moved north into Oregon. Their exodus pulled the rug out from the local economy. Property prices crashed. The Garberville Chamber of Commerce reported that local businesses had lost up to 50% of their sales. “I think a lot of people have been shocked to find how much they were tied to the growers,” the chamber’s president said.

People in Garberville started sporting bumper stickers telling the CAMP teams to go home. Restaurants refused to serve CAMP members. Some residents formed the Citizens Observation Group, which was dedicated to following the CAMP teams to catch them breaking the rules of law enforcement. They succeeded and a district judge found that the teams had conducted illegal searches and had used their helicopters for “dive bombings that at best disturb and at worst terrorise the hapless residents below”. A local radio station started to broadcast a daily CAMP report announcing the movements of the teams so that its likely targets could conceal their crops.

The initial success of the CAMP teams had the accidental effect of spreading the Emerald Triangle. Because CAMP used aerial surveillance to find targets, farmers were forced to develop techniques which would allow them to grow their marijuana under cover, in greenhouses or hangars. Those techniques have now been taken to states like Pennsylavania, for example, whose natural climate would not favour marijuana production but which is now said to be producing a competitive indoor crop all through the year.

The extent of the new marijuana industry and its evolution into a semi-respectable way of life is also apparent on the nation’s book shelves which now offer no less than seven different guides to the cultivation of the crop. Between them, they have sold more than a million copies.

The Drug Enforcement Administration has found evidence of large-scale marijuana farming in 28 states and has been trying to win public support for a drive against the farmers by claiming that marijuana plantations are being protected against trespassers with deadly booby traps: trip wires which detonate explosives, hidden pits which are lined with deadly spikes, and even rattlesnakes which are said to be tied to paths with their rattlers removed so that hapless intruders have no warning before the enraged snake sinks its fangs into their ankle.

But the DEA itself – rather like the district attorney who dealt with Richard Kurth – has produced an alternative and more lenient line. The DEA’s chief administrative judge issued a ruling this autumn in which he suggested that marijuana should be legalised as a medicine.

Judge Young, who is aged 60 and insists he has no personal interest in marijuana, said in his ruling that the medical benefits of the drug were ‘clear beyond any question’ particularly for the control of nausea in patients undergoing chemotherapy, and that the consumption of marijuana had never been known to cause a single death, unlike almost every other household drug, including aspirin.

“Eating ten raw potatoes can result in a toxic response,” he wrote in his ruling. “By comparison, it is physically impossible to eat enough marijuana to induce death. Marijuana in its natural form is one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man.”

Judge Young’s ruling coincided with a debate on Capitol Hill at the end of September when for the first time Congressmen discussed the possibility of legalising marijuana. Congressmen from farming states, including California, were among those who spoke in favour of considering the move.