Rob Parsons

Operation Greenharvest

Marijuana eradication methods have Upcountry residents seeing red

by Rob Parsons

August 20, 2009

You're at home on a sunny Upcountry morning, enjoying the peace and quiet. Suddenly, a barely audible drone cuts through the birdsong, becoming increasingly louder until the "whomp, whomp, whomp" of a jet-black helicopter is directly overhead, perhaps 100 feet above your rooftop. 

You run out into your yard, half expecting to see Hawkeye, Klinger or some other members of the M*A*S*H unit preparing for incoming wounded. Without thinking, you impulsively give a middle finger salute, furious at the intrusion. The pilot looks directly at you, circles, then tilts and flies away over a neighboring property.

This is but one version of stories related to me over the past week as federal- and state-funded marijuana eradication efforts have once again taken to the air. Comment threads lit up on Facebook last Friday, indicating that low-flying aircraft buzzed Haiku, Huelo, Olinda, Kula and Ulupalakua, leaving behind dozens of upset residents.

"It's very intense when they do their searches," one homeowner told me. "They come in here early—at 8:30 in the morning—and are flying way too low. The FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] said they're supposed to fly 500 feet or higher unless they have a warrant, but they were at 50 or 75 feet. It is so harassing!"

Operation Green Harvest began undercover in the late 1970s on the Big Island, with federal, state and local narcotics officers backed by police and National Guard helicopters. By the '80s it was a statewide operation, with the bulk of funding coming from the federal Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" campaign was in full swing, and millions of federal drug enforcement dollars flowed to Hawaii.

Some 30 years later, the funding and eradication efforts are still in place. In the current fiscal year 2010 budget for Maui County, the police department lists grants of $236,000 from the DEA and $82,170 from the statewide Marijuana Eradication Task Force Program. U.S Attorney Ed Kubo spoke after a 10-day Operation Green Harvest in 2008 netted nearly 30,000 plants and 36 pounds of processed pot. "Our goal is simple," Kubo stated. "It is to resist substance abuse in this state, and one way to reduce consumption is to reduce the supply of drugs."

Many have questioned the overall efficacy of the eradication program, contending it has not stopped cannabis cultivation, but rather encouraged it by driving up the price. Meanwhile, some say that casual drug users have been attracted to cheaper—but more damaging and addictive—drugs such as crystal methamphetamine, known as batu or ice. Thus the bumper sticker, "Thanks to Green Harvest, our kids are on ice!"

To many, the "Reefer Madness" mentality of some law enforcement personnel is clearly too heavy-handed and obtrusive. "They have no respect for civil rights," one frustrated resident told me. "When I called the DEA in Honolulu, the guy laughed at me and said, 'We don't need a warrant if we have probable cause.'

"They came on our property and yanked up our cassava plant, thinking it was pakalolo," she continued. "My fifteen-year old daughter was home sick from school and asked me, 'Why do we have to put up with that, but my school is under-funded?'"

My call to the Federal Aviation Authority brought a helpful clarification of language pertaining to aircraft flight limits. The Code of Federal Regulations denotes 500 feet as the minimum safe altitude. "Helicopters may be operated at less," [Title 14, Sec. 91.119] "if [conducted] without hazard to persons or property on the surface. In addition, each person operating a helicopter shall comply with any routes or altitudes specifically prescribed by helicopters by the Administrator."

"It just feels so 1984," wrote an Olinda resident, "to hear those choppers right above your head and not know who it is or what they are doing. I am so fed up with this police-state behavior. I know we can do better."

"We need to get organized," wrote another, "and do what the Big Island did; cut their budget by downgrading the issue to low priority in comparison to other county funding issues."

After years of hearing complaints about helicopter missions intruding on people's privacy and peace, in 2000 the Big Island County Council just said no to two-thirds of the annual federal eradication funds, totaling $265,000. But the following year, they reverted to accepting the full amount.

Last year, by a split 4-4 vote, the Hawaii Island Council failed to pass a motion to accept Green Harvest funding, heeding a citizen led "Peaceful Sky" initiative that had tallied more than 5,000 signatures.

That meant non-acceptance of $441,000 in state and federal funds, and a savings of $53,000 that would have been the county budget contribution.

"When we institute programs," said Councilmember Angel Pilago, "we, the county government, need to look at if they are detrimental to people's rights and the health and safety of the community. It's about home rule."

"People are really tired of seeing money misappropriated away from education and healthcare to fund a military-style war on a plant," said Adam Lehmann of the Peaceful Sky effort. "It's clearly going to give law enforcement more time and resources to focus on serious crimes. It's going to provide lots of space in our prisons, it's going to help courts run smoother and it's going to essentially save this county's taxpayers millions of dollars every year, because they will avoid the costs of strict marijuana enforcement."

However, the budgetary decision didn't entirely halt the use of helicopters for pot busts. In June, Hilo's Hawaii Herald Tribune reported that vice operations are using DEA and Hawaii Army National Guard helicopters, with the federal government picking up the tab. Assistant Police Chief Marshall Kanehailua contended that surveillance for investigation to "bring someone to adjudication" is less intrusive than eradication (where plants are uprooted and destroyed) and generates less complaints.

In addition to cutting eradication funds, the Peaceful Sky ordinance makes the personal use of marijuana by persons 21 and older the lowest police enforcement priority. Personal use is defined as "24 or fewer Cannabis plants at any stage of maturity," or the dried equivalent. Possession of less than an ounce is treated as third-degree promotion of a detrimental drug, a petty misdemeanor punishable by up to 30 days in jail.

Marijuana law enforcement and eradication has been further complicated by the growing number of people with permits to raise the plant for medical use. More than 4,200 individuals are certified statewide, after the legislature legalized medicinal use in 2000.

Is it right to do low-flying aerial surveillance, just to find out nothing is amiss? A Peahi vegetable farmer told me he endured two days of low-flying helicopters scoping out his place. Two days later, vice officers showed up and demanded to see what was in his greenhouse. 

He asked to see their warrant, and they produced it. He then led them to his greenhouse of ripening tomatoes, and they sheepishly left.

"Probable cause is nothing more than a convenient loophole that they abuse," said the Upcountry mom. "There's no way they could use the same police behavior if they were looking for something on private property on the ground."

With budgets stretched to the breaking point, all government spending must be carefully evaluated. It's time to ask: Is the war against pakalolo being waged effectively—and is it worth fighting at all?