Going To Pot | Travel | Chicago Reader

Going To Pot 

Illinois farmers are risking everything on a secret cash crop. ISU's Ralph Weisheit wants to know why.

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As life-changing events go, Ralph Weisheit's was no lightning bolt from the blue. It could easily have slipped right past him.

It's a good thing he's the studious type, given to the stay-at-home routines of small town life. Otherwise he might not have been watching Peoria's ten o'clock news that October night in 1986 when Channel 25's camera crew went along on a marijuana bust on a farm just outside Galesburg. State police found a field with over 1,000 plants of high-grade sinsemilla. They arrested a farmer, about age 60, and his son, about 25, and charged them with planting and cultivating it. As Weisheit watched them being hauled away, it hit him that the pair were American Gothic types, bib overalls and all. The son looked mortified, and when a reporter stuck a microphone in his face, he humbly told viewers that state police do an excellent job and the people of Illinois should be proud of them.

Weisheit, a criminal justice professor at Illinois State University in Normal, was an academic dabbler. He'd done some research on women and crime. He also had an interest in the evolution of drug policy, and he couldn't get the image of the bust or the young man's comments out of his mind--it contradicted all the academic literature about drug dealers he'd ever read. And he'd read a lot. "You're blinded by what you study," he says. "It really leads you down a predetermined path. Everything I'd been reading assumed drugs were an urban problem. These people looked nothing like the image I had of people involved in drugs. They didn't fit the world I'd been reading about--those inner-city young people. This guy was old--there was nothing inner city about him."

The whole thing made Weisheit feel kind of dumb, like he'd been watching too many cop shows. He'd always lived in rural areas, having grown up in the 60s in Jasper, Indiana (population 7,000). There were a few closet potheads, he recalls, but no one considered getting stoned a hip thing to do.

If there were two things Weisheit thought he knew a lot about, it was drug offenders and rural life. But the two never mixed in his mind. "And here it was right under our noses. It just never dawned on me."

After he saw the news that night, he recalls, "It was like when you hear a brand-new word and find yourself hearing it a lot." Stories of people that were a lot like the farmer and his son being busted for growing pot seemed to pop up in the press every day. His files are now full of newspaper clips with headlines like "Pot Worth $2 Million Seized" and "Farmer Gets Life for Pot."

He figured maybe these people weren't so unusual. Maybe the reason their stories were never heard was the us-versus-them mentality in which criminologists and the media tend to frame discussions about drugs. Weisheit set out to meet the farmer, his son, and other people who had been busted for growing marijuana in rural Illinois. Between 1988 and 1990, when he could steal time away from teaching, he drove the back roads of Illinois searching for the human stories behind the obscure headlines. He wanted to hear about why they did what they did and what effect it had on their lives. He found their motivations complex and surprising. There was a lot more to it than greed.

"The war on drugs is too much "good people versus evil people,' and the evil people stick out like a sore thumb, and all we have to do is get rid of them. The line is a lot fuzzier. It's a war against ourselves, and we have to be careful we don't destroy ourselves in the process. We're waging war against people who live in the community around us. If someone would have said that to me before, I would have said, "Well, yes, that's true.' But now I believe it in my heart."

Weisheit turned his research into a historical account of pot farming in the midwest called Domestic Marijuana: A Neglected Industry. Today, at age 42, he's a tenured professor at ISU in the department of criminal justice.

Weisheit doesn't come down hard in favor of either the growers or the cops. Although he thinks drug laws are too severe, he doesn't blame the cops. Rather, he thinks they should better understand grower culture so they can do their jobs more effectively and with more compassion.

A couple times a year he lectures at a governmental training center in Georgia, where all federal law enforcement agents except FBI people get schooling. Weisheit educates them on rural customs and etiquette. He tells them about the Illinois growers he's met, explains their motivations for taking such risks. It's something these agents will need to know to work with a local sheriff or state police on a marijuana bust. And it's something they're not otherwise likely to hear.

Weisheit kept a verbal diary of his journeys by talking into a hand-held tape recorder on the long drives back from meeting growers. The roads didn't look the same to him coming back. The innocent, innocuous little towns that drifted by him on the way out before seemed somewhat sinister on the return. They blended in just like the towns he'd just come from--the towns where people in the headlines had their marijuana operations, some of them big-time.

There's so much marijuana in Illinois that state police have a full-time project dedicated to tracking down and destroying it. It's called Operation Cash Crop, and employs not just state troopers but the national guard, the army reserve, and surveillance aircraft. State police statistics estimate they confiscated or destroyed over 57 million plants last year. All but about 60,000 of them were wild, growing in green fields along the highways and interstates. And the police admit they're likely to find only about 25 percent of what's actually out there.

Weisheit eventually learned to play his naivete about drugs to his advantage in locating and establishing rapport with growers. But it started him off badly. The first thing he did was go to state police headquarters in Springfield and ask for leads on people they'd busted. At first they were all for it, Weisheit says, but when it came time to name names they got cold feet. "They said if someone was growing once, chances are they're growing again and they wouldn't want me to disrupt any investigations. I said,"You mean you're afraid I'll make them stop growing?"'

When he struck out with the state police, Weisheit turned to looking through back issues of newspapers. When he made his first contacts with growers, he realized that it was a blessing that the police hadn't cooperated. With an opening line like "I got your name from the police," he would've gotten nowhere. They all would have thought he was a cop. He learned never to ask a grower the names of other growers, because it's one of the first questions a cop would ask. And he played down the professor bit too. He dressed like he likes to dress anyway, tennis shoes and T-shirts. "I had to show them I wasn't some asshole from the city coming to make them look like a hick from the sticks." He let them know he was a small-town boy just like them as soon as he could. He wanted to make them feel they knew a whole lot more about growing than he did. That was easy to do, since they did.

And because Weisheit had never known a marijuana grower he made the mistake of dismissing much of what his first subject said as paranoid babble. It was too much like deep throat. The guy was someone one of his students had hooked him up with.

The grower only agreed to talk to Weisheit by phone, and he abruptly hung up after about 15 minutes. He kept saying he was worried his phone was tapped. And he wasn't totally convinced Weisheit wasn't a cop. Did he have a job, Weisheit asked? Yes, he said, but he wasn't going to say where. Did he own a home? Yes, but he wasn't going to say where.

This guy sure was tense for someone who said he was only growing 15 indoor plants for personal use. His motivation, he said, was to avoid pesticides in stuff other people grew. Weisheit didn't know if he should believe anything the guy said. He thought he might be mentally unstable. Since there had been no prior research on pot farmers, Weisheit couldn't determine whether he was legitimately paranoid.

He'd done a few other interviews by the time he drove out to Galesburg to meet the farmers he'd seen arrested on the news that night. The father wouldn't talk to Weisheit, wanting to put the whole thing behind him. But the son let Weisheit come to his small, cramped, sparsely furnished mobile home. He wanted Weisheit to know he wasn't a pot smoker. He said he tried it once and had an allergic reaction. It made him cough a lot and gave him a headache.

He said planting the marijuana was his father's idea. They faced foreclosure on their farm, and a family acquaintance made them a business proposition. He would supply the marijuana seeds if they would tend and harvest the crop. Then they'd split the profits. The son was so anxious about being in the marijuana field that he'd go through boxes of Rolaids in a week. But what could he do? Walk out on his old man? Call the cops?

They were arrested before the first harvest. He said he was relieved to see the cops come. It meant this whole crazy thing was over. They ended up losing the farm anyway.

Weisheit drove home that night depressed, thinking, "He was the kind of guy where, if you had a daughter, you would say, "You know, she could do a lot worse than to marry a guy like that.' He could have been anyone I grew up with."

And he'd never heard anyone talk about the stress associated with growing the way he had. That first grower he talked to on the phone didn't sound so off-the-wall anymore.

Weisheit would hear a lot more of these save-the-farm stories from people who said they hated growing but did it to try to offset overwhelming financial pressures. But others really loved growing. They usually had small indoor operations and a gardener's passion, and smoked a lot themselves. Money wasn't the point. They made little of it. They were a lot like wine makers in search of the perfect vintage.

The one Weisheit remembers best lived near Galena. He had about 25 plants growing in his home. He was in his mid-20s with a young son. At harvest time, the son would come crawling along the floor pushing his Tonka pickup truck. Dad loaded the truck with fresh marijuana buds and the son hauled them away.

This guy even knew the best music to grow marijuana by. "If you put on dentists' music," he said, "nice, soft, like Barry Manilow, the plants like that."

These communal growers, as Weisheit calls them, who grew mostly for the fun of it, were the kinds of growers he met most often. But some growers were in it for the money. Weisheit calls them the hustlers. He knew he'd found one when he read about a guy who at the time of his arrest had the biggest operation ever busted in Illinois.

The hustler lived in southern Illinois. He was a boisterous blowhard in his 60s, a phony big shot. "He was in this to be the biggest and the best he could be," Weisheit says. "He bragged about how his fine was the biggest ever in Illinois. When he was arrested, he said to the sheriff, "You should thank me that you found this because this'll get you reelected."'

Weisheit says the hustler wasn't the least bit remorseful. He reminisced about his operation as if he'd been on a mission from God. Weisheit quotes him in his book: "This plant of all the Lord's plants is the most intriguing plant that I know of. . . . I have brought much happiness and well-being into this world. To me this is one of the miracles of this world that the Lord has given us such a worthy plant for us to enjoy."

There were times Weisheit doubted he would complete the research in one piece. He arranged to see a grower who had been busted after shooting a teenager who was raiding his crop. Weisheit couldn't help but worry about this one as he approached the house situated on a deserted dirt road. There weren't any neighbors for miles. He regretted not having brought somebody with him. Weisheit told himself to trust in the contradictions that were characteristic of the growers he'd met. The urban drug offenders of the academic research most often had a violent criminal history. But the rural Illinois marijuana growers Weisheit had come to know were usually like the farmer's son, whose only previous encounter with cops was when he blew a stop sign. Weisheit really hoped there was more to this guy's story too.

He was a husky man, mid-30s or so, but his manner was calm and his voice was quiet. He had a medium-sized operation, about 400 plants. His reason for growing at first, he said, was for personal use, but he expanded because of the profits.

They sat at his picnic table and talked. It was a cold day and Weisheit was shivering, but the grower was so engrossed in talking about the circumstances that led to his arrest that Weisheit didn't even want to stop him for the two minutes it would have taken him to get his coat from his car.

The guy told Weisheit the shooting was accidental; he had intended to scare the boy but had panicked. He said his hand shook so much the gun went off.

So he put the kid in his truck and drove him to the emergency room. And that's where he was busted.

The grower had teenage sons of his own. "I asked him if they knew what he was up to. He said, "Nooooo,"' Weisheit says, in the same God-forbid tone the grower must have used. "He said, "I would go into these rages where I would say to them I'd better not ever catch them doing that stuff!' And all the while he was doing it he was high."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photos/Chip Williams.

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