Sparkman, collateral damage in the war on drugs?

Hard information about the murder of Bill Sparkman is difficult to gather. The FBI is now on the case and is backpedaling to the point of suggesting it might have been suicide for all we know. Really? According to the AP interview of Jerry Weaver, the man who found the body, Sparkman was stripped to his socks with his feet and ankles bound by duct tape. There was a gag in his mouth and duct tape around his neck. Apparently, an abandoned S-10 pickup truck was also nearby and Sparkman’s clothes were in the bed. That differs greatly from most of the initial news reports that said Sparkman was found hanging from a tree, and later amended to say that his feet were touching the ground so he wasn’t technically hanging. It’s gruesome and frightening any which way you arrange the details, but a very important amount of context has been left out of the entire media onslaught.

What’s been called the Summer of Hate certainly plays a part in this. With major media celebrities and politicians talking about revolution and the like, acting as a bellows on whatever anger resides in places like Clay County, that anger is sure to become white hot. I do not discount this angle of the story, nor should any of us. It’s real and it’s very dangerous.

But let’s consider the overall situation that Mr. Sparkman entered, knocking on doors as a representative of the federal government of these United States. We’ll assume that Mr. Sparkman was just a census worker earning $12/hour.

He wouldn’t have been the only agent of the federal government knocking on doors in Clay County this time of year; in fact, the federal government has a large contingent of agents descend on the area every fall. As poor as the region appears on census statistics, it is perennially one of the top three regions for outdoor marijuana cultivation in the US. Federal and state governments pour millions into the area every fall to pay for helicopters, Humvees, assault rifles and officers. Their hope and goal is to eradicate as much of Kentucky’s largest cash crop as is humanly possible.

It’s a very large crop. [Caveat: Government estimates based on seizures are notoriously unreliable, and government estimates of “street value” are generally so out-of-touch with reality that they’re functionally useless. Unfortunately, those numbers are all we have.] In 2005, Kentucky produced $342 million worth of tobacco and $336 million worth of corn. Law enforcement estimates that it seized or destroyed $1 billion worth of marijuana in Kentucky that same year. And that was at a time when marijuana production was declining in the area. Since the beginning of The Great Recession, cultivation has been on the rise again. The DEA and state police seized or destroyed 10,625 pounds of marijuana in Kentucky in 2008. Using the estimates compiled by Jon Gettman, the 2008 seizures in Kentucky represent $14,779,375 (farm gate prices) removed from the local economy at a cost of millions in taxpayer funds.

Of course, the government doesn’t get it all. It estimates that between 20 and 40% of the harvest slips through its fingers. So 10,625 pounds represents, at most, 80% of Kentucky’s harvest in 2008. But that’s probably a crock. The old grower’s adage is that you plant 1/3 for the cops, 1/3 for thieves, and 1/3 for yourself. In 2006, the head of Kentucky’s marijuana eradication program estimated that no more than 50% of the crop was destroyed. Other estimates place the seizures at around 10% of the total crop.

As police presence has increased, growers have moved away from large plots with hundreds or thousands of plants that are easily spotted from the air to more, smaller plots. Smaller plots tend to get more care and, consequently, produce higher yields. The $2000 per plant profit that law enforcement claims is probably not far off the mark (and may be low in a grower’s best case scenario). So bringing just ten plants to harvest produces more income than a minimum wage job that is non-existent in any case.

That’s why the federal government has thrown out the old Drug War rule of thumb that federal prosecution begins at the cultivation of 100 plants or more. These days in Kentucky, any cultivation is a federal prosecution. Growers use the Daniel Boone National Forest to avoid forfeiture laws, which enable the government to seize all assets of someone involved in the trade before conviction. But if they find a plot on national forest land, they can do little more than destroy the plot and claim a teaspoon sized victory in the battle to drain an ocean.

This is the situation Mr. Sparkman entered, knocking on doors for the federal government. He was probably just a census worker, but in a world where police officers use information gathered from children in DARE classes to arrest parents, trusting anyone representing the government is dangerous for those on the wrong side of the law. In Clay County, just about everyone is or connected to someone who is on the wrong side of the law. Realistically, they don’t have much choice.

None of this excuses the murder of Bill Starkman, not even if he was an informant. Nor does it negate the part that anti-government hysteria promoted by the likes of Glenn Beck played in the murder. We can only hope that the perpetrators are captured and brought to justice. But what’s the difference between the US government destroying marijuana fields in Kentucky and poppy fields in Afghanistan? Why has the latter been discontinued because it only harms poor farmers while the former has been increased, even though it harms small farmers without affecting the larger trade?

And after looking at the few numbers above, how does the President of the United States laugh at questions about the economic benefits of marijuana legalization/decriminalization? Perhaps he wants to keep people in desperate poverty. What else can we conclude if he continues to wage a war against his own people? He certainly shouldn’t be sending innocent men into the drug war torn areas of Appalachia to take the chance of reaping the government’s own bitter harvest.

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