Mount Sterling, Illinois — On a recent sweltering August afternoon, West Central Illinois Task Force agents converged in rural Mount Sterling, where a huge patch of marijuana had been reported.
The air was filled with the pungent smell of hot weeds and the buzz of a multitude of insects. Butterflies danced to the sound of a tractor coming up the dirt two-wheel farm track.
There, at the end of a farm track, the agents faced towering marijuana plants numbering in the tens of thousands.
“It’s the biggest field I’ve ever seen,” said Illinois State Police Investigator Jeff Jacobs, as he started swinging a machete at the plants more than 10 feet tall.
“We’ll probably be out here ’til dark,” said fellow investigator David Roll.
A third man, an undercover agent for the task force, operated a bush hog, getting the bulk of the marijuana patch, while Jacobs and Roll slashed at plants on the perimeter.
Any of the plants could be used by drug users, the agents said. They see two kinds of marijuana — wild patches like this one and cultivated plots where the marijuana is potent.
Both are subject to destruction, and with good reason, Brown County Sheriff Jerry Kempf said.
“The less available it is, the better off,” he said. “We have kids who routinely raid these wild plots and some dealers will routinely use it as filler. If it’s dried correctly and you take care of it, you can get high off it. If the kids knew this was here, they’d have a field day.”
That’s why the task force went in under Operation Cash Crop to eradicate the patch. Somebody did know it was there.
Master Sgt. Tim Wooldridge, head of the task force in Quincy, said an area resident reported traffic in the area where the marijuana was found.
“The kids are picking it — it’s a priority,” he said.
“I just saw the stuff growing back there and then I saw the traffic going back there at odd hours of the day and night,” said the resident who contacted Kempf. “There have been cars running down there with their lights off at 3 o’clock in the morning.”
Kempf got the ball rolling and brought in the task force.
Wooldridge said most Operation Cash Crop details result from either resident tips or information from confidential sources.
While wild marijuana was the object of this detail, Wooldridge said the task force already has received 10 tips this year about cultivated plants — a 40 percent increase over a year ago. Most years, tips don’t come in until harvest time. That’s when farmers are in the fields, and the green of the pot plants stands out against the brown corn.
Last year, about 30,000 wild plants were eradicated through Operation Cash Crop. This year, agents already have taken out that much and expect the second half of the season to see the same level of activity.
On average, the task force follows about 50 leads a year for wild and cultivated plots. Last year, 82 cultivated plants were seized as evidence from about a half-dozen plots.
Operation Cash Crop is funded by the state, which Wooldridge said has added funding over the last three years. “With the additional funding — increasing manpower and equipment — it’s been proven to be more successful,” he said.
Meth production has leveled out locally, allowing the task force to dedicate more manpower to the program.
Operation Cash Crop helps local police departments that struggle with limited budgets. “These cases usually need a lot of time — sitting on the plots,” Wooldridge said. Agents watched the plot outside Mount Sterling for three weeks.
One of the agents on surveillance heard people in the patch once, but was unable to find them in the dense underbrush and massive marijuana and horse weed plants.
This agent said the surveillance and destruction of the plots is worth the effort, primarily to keep them from children and dope dealers who use the wild weed as mix, thus making more money.
“It’s just better not to give them the opportunity,” he said.
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