On the day Hart Squire‘s Reems Creek property was raided on suspicion of illegal drug activity, 12 law-enforcement vehicles (marked and unmarked) arrived, bearing some 25 federal, state and local law-enforcement officers who wore bulletproof vests and carried holstered guns. Squire’s mother answered the door. “Sorry, we don’t need any tickets to the policemen’s ball,” she managed to quip.
The raid — which took place on July 19, 1999 — lasted more than three hours. Two days before the raid, Squire had noticed helicopters circling his land.
U.S. Forest Service Special Agent Malcolm Jowers told the Squire family that his office had a search warrant for the property and the buildings on it, based on evidence that Squire was growing marijuana in the national forest nearby. The warrant alleged, in part, “There is now concealed [on the Squire property] … clothes [specifically described in an attached affidavit] worn during the cultivation of marijuana and a wedding band worn during the cultivation of marijuana [both as viewed on a police-surveillance video of a man tending a marijuana patch near the Squire property], the same brand of fertilizer used to grow marijuana [as was found at the marijuana patch], the same fencing wire used, marijuana seeds, and marijuana.”
Squire reports that officers frisked his 11-year-old son, Rusty, in the driveway — adding that the boy soon went to bed and was afraid to go outside again, fearing he would be shot. Rusty, who has a history of violent-trauma episodes, is one of three special-needs children Squire and his wife, Monika Wengler, were in the process of adopting at the time.
Squire describes the officers’ behavior as arrogant, and says they treated him “like an animal, an ‘other’ creature, a genetic defective.” The officers interrogated Hart, his wife, his father, his mother and the children separately. They showed each family member photos taken from a somewhat fuzzy surveillance video taken nearby, featuring a person (whom they alleged was Squire) tending a marijuana patch. They asked each family member to identify the man in the video. None could. (Among other physical differences, Squire wears a long, “rat-tail” ponytail, while the man in the video had close-cropped hair.) The last task required of Squire and his family was to help Jowers complete forms listing the Social Security numbers, height, weight and other vital statistics of all family members.
In the end, none of the evidence listed on the search warrant and the affidavit filed in support of it — nor any other incriminating evidence — was found on the property. The officers left, making no apology, according to Squire.
Neither Special Agent Jowers, nor any other agent who participated in the raid, was willing to comment publicly on the case. Other U.S. Forest Service agents and law-enforcement officers contacted for this article, however, emphasize that they feel such searches are justified, if suspicion of illegal drug activity exists.
Leslie Burrill, supervisor of law enforcement and investigations for the U.S. Forest Service’s central zone, notes that — since Congress passed the Drug Control Act in 1986, directing the USFS to enforce federal drug laws in the national forests — “a significant number of drug cases [involving national-forest land] have been solved.” Specifically, Burrill reports that USFS enforcement efforts had cut illegal drug activity in Western North Carolina’s national forests by about 50 percent, as of 1990.
“We have [drug activity] down to a manageable level now, but we need significant additional funding to stop it completely,” he maintains. In Burrill’s opinion, the so-called “war on drugs” has been successful in this region.
Many drug-war opponents, however, feel the price has been too high — both in strictly monetary terms and in the currency of civil-rights violations that they believe are leveled against often-innocent suspects.
As for Squire, he’s now talking with attorneys about pursuing a court case against the agencies involved in the raid on his property.
Nine months have passed since the raid, and still no hard evidence has been found against Squire, his family or anyone on his property, according to U.S. Forest Service records. Yet the USFS still lists the investigation as “ongoing.” Squire reports that the open-ended nature of the case has become the most grievous aspect of the whole incident. He says he feels suspect even walking in the woods near his property, and he wonders if his phone is tapped — though his friends optimistically joke that such things happen only in the movies.
Squire is also worried about the “alternative” living arrangements on his property: He runs an organic farm and also operates a business distributing wine and health foods there. He calls the unusual living/business situation on his property a “family partnership,” in which people who aren’t immediate family (whom Squire characterized as “renters/community members” in a written statement procured from him during the raid) work and reside there. At the time of the search, Squire was deeply concerned that he would be arrested if anyone on his land were using or growing marijuana — even if he knew nothing about it. As it turned out, no evidence of such activity was found. He feels lucky — but he doesn’t feel protected.
Squire asserts that the “psychological trauma” made him physically ill. He reveals that he lost money during a four-day period after the raid, because the illness prevented him from conducting business; he also reports that the already-troubled Rusty is still traumatized by the ordeal. What’s more, says Squire, the incident could have (and may still) cost him the family he and his wife have worked hard to build — because the final adoption procedures for Rusty and two additional children were still in process at the time of the raid.
Squire believes he was set up for a bogus Alcohol Law Enforcement interview, so that agents could compare the videotaped interview with the surveillance video. (He notes that, during 10 years in the wine-distribution business, he’d never been called in for a face-to-face ALE interview — until just before the raid.) The affidavit and application for a search warrant filed by agent Jowers in U.S. District Court for the Western District of North Carolina bears out Squire’s theory. At one point, the affidavit states, “ALE agent Webb Corthell had set up an interview with J. Hart Squire, and U.S. Forest Service Supervisory Law Enforcement Officer Jenny Davis [one of the lead officers on the Squire case] was going to look at Squire [on the video] and compare him with the numerous times she had viewed the videotape showing the suspect in the marijuana patch.” After viewing the ALE video, Davis “felt that Jonathan Hart Squire was the man in the marijuana video,” according to the affidavit.
And, according to Jowers’ affidavit, Squire’s mail carrier, Parker Cody, was shown still photos from the video of a man harvesting and tending marijuana. Cody could not specifically identify Squire as the person in the photos but, as stated in the affidavit, “Mr. Cody offered that [the person in the video] was one of three people on his route, one of whom was [Squire].”
Other evidence mentioned in the affidavit, purportedly linking Squire to marijuana growing, was so circumstantial as to be nonexistent. A specific type of fertilizer (Mineral Earth Products’ Natural Fertilizer and Soil Builder) found near the marijuana patch was traced by law-enforcement officers to its primary regional dealer, Earl Choonard of Columbus, S.C. According to the affidavit, “Mr. Choonard stated that his product was a very specialized type of organic fertilizer used by herb farms, nurseries and organic farmers, and that one of his reps had been selling the fertilizer at the Farmers Market in Asheville over the past several years.” Although this type of fertilizer was not found on Squire’s property, the agents may have reasoned that Squire might use it, since he runs an organic farm.
In the end, none of the items presumed to be on Squire’s property — and listed on the search warrant and on the supporting affidavit — was found during the raid.
As a self-described “law-abiding citizen,” Squire says he’s now disillusioned about his government. “It’s a police state now,” he asserts. “They’re creating an ‘us vs. them’ mentality.”
The role of the U.S. Forest Service
Four different law-enforcement agencies took part in the raid on Squire’s land and home. At the federal level, the lead agency was the Forest Service’s Law Enforcement and Investigations Division. The other agencies involved were: the Metropolitan Enforcement Group (MEG), a drug-enforcement task force made up of representatives of the Asheville Police Department and the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Department; the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation (SBI); and North Carolina State Alcohol Law Enforcement (ALE).
Leslie Burrill is in charge of USFS enforcement in Western North Carolina. He supervises 35 officers, and his jurisdiction covers 4.25 million acres in nine national forests in North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia. His domain includes pretty much every kind of illegal activity — from drug violations to breaking and entering to arson to littering.
When and why did USFS eye-in-the-sky drug surveillance become prevalent?
In the 1970s, says Burrill, there was “significant impact from marijuana growers in the national forests,” but the agency had no authority to enforce drug laws. “We could get ’em only on illegal work-activity charges,” he reports. That meant marijuana growers who planted their seeds on federal forest lands would, at worst, spend six months in jail or pay a $500 fine.
But the Drug Control Act of 1986 gave the Forest Service free rein to enforce drug laws in the national forests. The law covers everything from marijuana patches in the forests to the manufacture of synthetic drugs (such as methamphetamine) in homemade laboratories on lands adjoining national forests. The USFS immediately set up a surveillance program to watch over both the national forests and neighboring private lands where drug activity was suspected. The program has been in operation ever since — using human observers, long-range video, and helicopter and airplane surveillance. The Drug Control Act gives the Forest Service access to SWAT teams, National Guard helicopters and heavy firepower.
At what cost?
Technically, the Forest Service’s Law Enforcement and Investigations Division is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Tracking the costs of drug surveillance-and-enforcement programs here in Western North Carolina is very difficult, according to Burrill, because of the personnel exchanges involving local law enforcement, state police agencies such as the SBI, and the USFS’s own officers and special agents.
Burrill’s department uses floating federal special agents such as Malcolm Jowers, drawn from a four-state region. These agents can be used for any kind of Forest Service enforcement work — not just drug raids. When asked exactly how much his agency spends on drug enforcement in WNC’s national forests, Burrill is succinct: “We don’t know.” (Helicopters, for instance, are borrowed from the National Guard.)
He estimates his annual departmental budget in North Carolina to be $590,000 — with eight full-time officers assigned to the national forests. Law-enforcement officers are paid $50,000 per year; special agents earn $70,000 per year. One law-enforcement officer on a raid earns about $192 per day. These figures reflect only what the Forest Service pays; they do not include expenses for which officers are reimbursed by state and local agencies.
The SBI’s Western District covers 16 counties in Western North Carolina. The agency lends personnel to the Forest Service to conduct drug searches in the national forests and surrounding areas. SBI Special Agent in Charge David Barnes has worked what’s called “eradication” — the destruction of marijuana patches — for 20 years in Western North Carolina. He admits that drug-enforcement costs are high: “Sixty percent of [SBI] time is spent on drugs — including alcohol — directly and indirectly.” But that includes all of WNC, not just the national forests; he says the SBI works with the Forest Service on drug enforcement only “infrequently.”
When asked to answer accusations by Squire (and others who have publicly criticized enforcement policies) that law-enforcement officials harass people who live in intentional communities or pursue alternative living arrangements (like those on the Squire property), Barnes is adamant about the SBI’s objectivity. “Just because somebody’s political views are different from our own doesn’t mean we investigate them,” he declares. “If they [are alleged to have committed] an illegal act, we will pursue it. We’re serious, though, about not taking on a thug or ‘jackboot’ image.”
Barnes also stresses that, if a renter were arrested on drug charges, the owner of the property would not be held liable. But a property owner could be held accountable, he reveals, if there are subsequent arrests of renters, or patterns of illegal behavior by renters, on the same property. And even that limited legal protection does not apply to those who share land under alternative arrangements such as land trusts, leases or simple verbal agreements, which can muddy the legal waters.
Burrill bristles at the charge that the Forest Service is simply harassing people on private land, for ulterior motives: “It is still a federal offense to grow marijuana on private land,” he emphasizes, explaining that the agency’s drug-surveillance program is driven by tips. Often, he relates, the local police are called when a suspect gathering is held on public lands, or when neighbors feel something is amiss on an adjacent property. Locally, the USFS receives a constant stream of complaints, Burrill reports, and agents follow up on the ones that sound credible.
Burrill also denies that his agency harasses people just because their neighbors don’t like them. “It takes a lot of work to get a [search] warrant,” he points out. “We don’t go in there just on hearsay.”
The Forest Service always works with state and local authorities. The property in question is searched and a report written up. The report goes to the U.S. attorney general’s office, which decides whether to prosecute under federal drug laws, put the case on hold, have the agents gather more evidence, or throw it out. Even if no evidence is found, a case can be “ongoing” (or open) for two years or more. One to two years is typical, according to Burrill. During that time, the original suspect may or may not be under active investigation and may or may not be charged. Agent Barnes says cases against people who are raided can remain open for years, simply “on procedure.” He refused to explain this phenomenon further, on the record.
But giving the authorities that much free rein has some people worried.
Dixie Deerman is a member of the Asheville Community of Compassion, a coalition of local people who want to change local attitudes toward the medicinal, industrial and spiritual uses of cannabis — both as marijuana and as hemp.
Deerman challenges local law enforcement’s practice of teaming up with state and federal agents to conduct raids in the woods: “Agencies work together to entangle any investigation of their activities,” she charges — in other words, to make it harder for people to tell what they’re up to.
Burrill, however, maintains that “the use of multiple agencies is necessary, to share limited resources.” And that rationale is echoed by officer Billy Dayton of MEG, an agency funded half by the city and half by Buncombe County.
Deerman also argues that city and county agents are not required to take part in USFS anti-drug activities. “Local law officers are not sworn to enforce laws in ‘federal enclaves’ [such as Forest Service land],” she asserts — referring to local law-enforcement’s lack of jurisdiction on federal lands. Therefore, she and fellow Community of Compassion members argue, local law enforcement could choose to make drug raids a low priority, and could even refuse to cooperate with federal officials.
Dayton agrees with Deerman on at least one point: “We could make drug work our lowest priority and not cooperate with federal agents,” he notes. “[But] the root of all evil are drug violations. Your robberies will increase, because [most] are related to drugs.”
Currently, MEG draws officers from the Asheville Police Department and the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Department to help conduct drug raids. Sheriff’s Department officers, says Dayton, are pulled off the highways for drug raids in the county (including those on national-forest land), and APD officers are pulled from the Community Policing Team. About 30 search warrants are issued in drug cases each year in Buncombe County, Dayton reports.
The Community of Compassion Web site says that group members advocate the legalization of marijuana for medicinal purposes — for everything from migraine headaches to liver disorders. They call themselves “conscientious objectors to America’s drug war” and believe that it’s wrong for the U.S. government to persecute and imprison its citizens for cultivating and using Cannabis sativa — which they say is simply an herb.
In April of 1999, the group launched a petition drive to force a citywide referendum in Asheville on whether to make enforcing anti-marijuana laws the APD’s lowest priority. At least 7,500 signatures must be gathered by April 20, 2000. Group members say that thousands of signatures have been gathered so far, though they don’t yet have a specific count. The group’s proposed ordinance is modeled specifically on the Berkeley Marijuana Ordinance of 1979, which makes anti-marijuana enforcement that city’s lowest-priority law-enforcement issue. Asheville’s version is called “Ordinance to Direct the City Manager and Police that Laws Criminalizing the Possession, Cultivation, and Use of Cannabis be Given Lowest Priority of Enforcement.”
And the war goes on
Susan Merrill — a homesteader and organic-herb grower who lives with her husband and children on 30 acres in Madison County — was also raided recently by officers from the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Department, on suspicion of illegal drug activity. Merrill says the officers, who suddenly appeared at her door one afternoon, laughed at her when she denied growing marijuana on the property.
Merrill reports that the officers then went off to search her family’s land. They returned some time later, saying they were sorry for the inconvenience. The supposed marijuana, they noted, “had turned out to be something else.”
She describes her reaction as “my knees going out from under me.” No illegal activity was found, but Merrill was extremely concerned about what could have happened: “I use scales and [plastic bags] for the measuring and sales [of the herbs I grow],” she notes — the same accouterments often used by marijuana growers.
Merrill explains that her husband, Michael, had cut back a thickly wooded area on the property the previous summer; the honey-locust trees there grew back bright green. And that, she assumes, is what was spotted from the helicopters she heard overhead, some 15 minutes before the officers appeared at her door. But what bothers her most is what she calls the officers’ stated certainty that she was growing marijuana on her property. She considers that kind of attitude harassment, and likens it to the sometimes paranoid and violent policies associated with alcohol prohibition in the 1930s.
Hart Squire, meanwhile, emphasizes that he doesn’t know whether his property will be raided again. Because his case is still open, he suspects he may be under continued police surveillance. “Every time I walk in the woods, I’m a suspect,” he concludes.
Hemp, an economic victim of the drug war
Maria Leatherwood runs the High Mountain Hemporium, an Asheville store that sells products made from hemp. She’s become a kind of hemp activist by accident, she says. Every day, in her shop, she explains both the uses of hemp and the plant’s current legal status: It’s a non-narcotic cousin of the cannabis plant, particularly useful because of its versatile fiber.
Hemp can be used to manufacture clothes, tree-free paper, oils and medicinal salves, insulation, building materials (there’s a house in North Dakota made entirely of hemp), and much more (in one 1997 line of Mercedes, hemp fibers were used in the dashboards). Leatherwood likes to say that hemp features “everything to sustain a community,” and that it should replace tobacco in North Carolina as a cash crop. The fast-growing plant rejuvenates depleted soils and can be grown organically, requiring no pesticides or herbicides.
Hemp proponents say it can provide four times the fiber per acre that a tree farm does, and can also be used to make chipboard. Our national forests have been a controversial source of wood pulp for local paper mills, such as Canton’s Sunburst Paper Company (formerly owned by Champion International). But this versatile weed could eliminate the need to cut down trees to make paper and chipboard — while providing income for local farmers hurt by the recent turmoil surrounding what she calls a “currently legal drug”: tobacco.
So why haven’t North Carolina farmers jumped at the chance to grow hemp? Growing hemp is illegal in this state, because it carries the stigma of its illicit cousin — cannabis.
“In 1997, the Kentucky Hemp Growers Association had a campaign to educate citizens. But the DEA stated that, even if hemp and its uses were legitimate, [its legalization] would be an excuse to grow psychoactive plants [marijuana],” laments Leatherwood. Currently, growing hemp is legal only in North Dakota and Hawaii.
Leatherwood notes that she can sympathize with both sides in the drug war. Her brother is a sheriff in Swain County, and law enforcement “feeds my family,” she says. But Leatherwood goes on to point out that the real problem is the laws decreeing hemp to be illegal. Local police departments, she concedes, are only doing their job when they enforce those laws — which she feels need to be changed.