busted: america's war on marijuana
FRONTLINE Interview with Steve White. </b> He is a former DEA agent who ran Indiana's war on marijuana.  He now teaches undercover police techniques. Interview conducted in the winter of 1997-98.
INTERVIEWER

Can you talk about the growers you have met over the years?

STEVE WHITE

Twenty years before I had done a lot of undercover work--it was mainly amphetamine, LSD, heroin and cocaine--I thought all the dealers were scum. When I got into the marijuana program, one thing that amazed me was how cooperative a lot of the people were. How proud of what they're doing. How normal in every other respect they were.

This is confusing and I'm not used to lawbreakers that took their kids to school and worked as crossing guards and that sort of thing. Whole different attitude. It made it a lot more complex, but it made it a lot more interesting.

Then, as I learned more about the agriculture, itself, and was able to talk to these people, they became even more interesting because they had devoted a lot of time into learning as much as they could. The amount of expertise that they had was at the university level quite a bit because I went to IU [Indiana University] and talked to people in the biology department to find out what was being done.

They were always on the cutting edge of the technology and they took some very common technology and utilized it in the growers. So, I'd have to honestly say I was impressed by them and I found a lot of them to be engaging personally. There's some of them that I, quite frankly, like. But I still put 'em in jail. They're breaking the law.

But they're different. They're not crack dealers. They're not South Americans with machine guns. But here, thank goodness, we were able to escape the violence in some other areas. I think part of it was the philosophy of law enforcement here in Indiana. We did not go up and crash through doors. You cannot flush down 300 pounds of marijuana and 15 growing lights and the attendant equipment.

We'd walk up and knock on the door. Here we are. Let you do it peacefully, and most of the time we go in with a video camera and they'd take us through and tell us where, because there are danger areas in there as far as electric power and water and fertilizers, and most of them cooperated, which I wasn't used to. I can't recall one ever physically resisting. Sometimes they're a little unhappy, and there was harsh language used, but that doesn't hurt.

So they're different. They impress me.

INTERVIEWER

Did you come to any conclusions?

STEVE WHITE

I still reflect about it. We've got alcohol, we've got tobacco. Why are so many people dedicated to this drug? I don't believe it has any medicinal value. At one time, the government did run a program, which I partially administered here, where we had marijuana cigarettes available. We couldn't find a physician in the state that would write a prescription for them. It's been much ballyhooed, but that existed for over ten years and the medical community rejected it.

I think a lot of people that grow, actually grow it to stay off the mean streets. They don't have to go out and buy dope, and go to the places where it's sold and deal with the people that sell it. But the downside and reverse side of that is sometime along the line they say, "Gee, I've spent this much on equipment and this much on fertilizer. Why don't I grow a little more and sell it, and pay for that?"

People get hurt, not physically, but families get hurt. It happens, but that's very fair and simple. If you're in there, in your house, growing marijuana for your own use, chances are we will probably never show up, because you're not going to use that much power. Nothing, people are not going to know about it. You asked me about informants. One year, we did three indoor grows here based on the children [of] the growers, through the D.A.R.E. program. They not only told us about it. They drew diagrams. How to get to daddy's indoor grow. So, that's tough on a family.

INTERVIEWER

Well, if the law is creating a situation in which kids are spying on their parents. Do you think about that?

STEVE WHITE

Oh, I don't see that like Nazi Germany or Communist Russia. No. No. I just put that out because it happened and I find that unusual noteworthy, maybe even scary. But on the other hand, most people in this country will tell you they want education on drug abuse. This is what you're going to get from your educator.

INTERVIEWER

What do you think about the idea of decriminalization?

STEVE WHITE

I am just opposed to decriminalizing it. Where do we stop? Do we tell our young people that marijuana's bad, but under 30 grams is good? That doesn't make sense. If 30 grams is good, then 31 grams, what's bad about that? They're intelligent enough to see through that argument.

The toughest audience you ever have speaking about drugs is a bunch of teenage kids. Not only do they have most of the answers, but they think they know the ones they don't have. I'm against decriminalization because I believe we have to draw the line somewhere, and we have enough problems without legalizing marijuana. You say to decriminalize small amounts, but then where does that stop?

INTERVIEWER

There are anti-drug people who paint marijuana as not only valueless, but evil. Do you think that we go too far in painting it.

STEVE WHITE

I think we did that in the 30s. I think we did it in the 50s with my generation, when I was a kid. My parents told me horror stories about marijuana and they wouldn't have known marijuana if it had hit them in the face. Frankly, as you get a little older and get into service and see marijuana, you realize it will not make hair grow in the palms of your hand.

Some people say it's a benign drug, but I don't think it is because quite frankly, I [have] seen too many instances of people smoking and then they get thirsty and then they throw a little wine, maybe a quart or two. We talked to a fellow earlier today who almost blew up a laboratory because the ether and the marijuana and wine altogether. We don't know how many traffic accidents to attribute to it.

Plus in my experience I've seen people that have smoked for over 20 years and I've seen them become dull. Not everybody, by any chance, but a number of them and I can't account for any other thing they did in their life that made them dull, and these were not heavy smokers, but they smoked a joint or two a day. That's scary. That's not much. That's a couple of grams.

INTERVIEWER

Was there a particular case that stands out as really affecting you?

STEVE WHITE

It was a five-year investigation and involved individuals here and in Colorado and in New Mexico. Basically, they had a hothouse operation in southern Indiana that appeared to turn out about 7,000 to 8,000 plants every quarter. They owned at least two farms. One of a 119 acres and the other one of a 120, and they would set the plants out there and initially grow them in the hothouse and then set them out, harvest them and then transfer the dope out west.

Now, the investigation that we conducted indicated that these folks made $7 or $8 million in about a four year period of time. They admitted to making $1 million, so the truth is somewhere in between but $1 million is a lot of money for a part-time operation like that.

I'm concerned about the corruption that I have seen particularly in a couple of other areas in this country, not only to law enforcement, but to communities, in general, where the economic conditions are such that marijuana becomes a dominant force in that county or in that region and the police while a lot of times not involved are paid not to be involved if that makes any sense. They'll patrol this road for a month or two or for three or four days, or at night, and your business community, your banks, your merchants, they become a part of it because your children and citizens see them taking that money which they have to do to survive. It's not an easy answer, but it happens.

So there again, I'm against it. I've seen it happen. I see people get into it for one year of the growing season, "We're going to make the big win and quit." And they can't. The money's too easy, and eventually, those are the ones we catch. They have a saying in the marijuana business, "We're not millionaires, but we live like millionaires." Well, that's one way that we catch them, and they do it quite frequently--a lot of trips, lot of toys.

INTERVIEWER

Tell me about the case of the two brothers--an architect and a lawyer.

STEVE WHITE

Well, the two brothers had started on a small scale in Colorado. The architect was growing in his basement, he and his wife in his home in a suburb of Boulder. They made so much money with this fairly small crop of 300 or 400 plants, because it was an Afghani strain and that was new at the time. That must have been over ten years ago. That the next year they put in 3,000.

They jumped seedlings. They transported half of them to Nebraska and half of them out here. The brother that was an attorney had found a farmer that was in some financial difficulties, which a lot of people were about that time. The Reagan prosperity had busted out, and a lot of farmers had bought land high and crops prices had fallen, and the farmer agreed [to] plant a camouflage corn crop and basically nurture this marijuana crop--1,500 plants.

There were several participants, pickers and harvesters. This is formalized. It's almost [like] GM. People have different jobs and the low-level people make about $30,000 a year and the higher up in the organization you were, the more money you make.

Next year, they did it on a larger scale, but they had bad weather, and the guy that set the crops out didn't put the right herbicide in and they had a little agricultural disaster. So about that time, we'd become aware of it. There were search warrants and information that the Indiana State Police had developed out of the local community, and they got in one more crop and probably did fairly well with that probably. My guess is about 600 plants. And we were able to arrest them.

There were initially 16 people indicted. Seven of them pled guilty. Nine went to trial. The trial took nine weeks. We had offered a plea bargain of sentences from ten years down to three. They took, what we call the constitutional cruise, and when it was over the jury was out, I think, [for] four hours ... and they got sentences up to 20 plus years, all guilty.

Now their contention is that they only made about $1 million, but by the money spent and the paper trail we were able to develop, we thought it was a lot more and there were fines levied particularly on the attorney for the amount of income. Their contention is that it all went for legal fees. I don't know.

INTERVIEWER

Was there something about the two brothers that struck you particularly?

STEVE WHITE

Well, it was an interesting case in the organization and the loyalty that the people showed to each other. In a way, it was typical of marijuana cases in that these people were much better educated. The attorney was particularly hard to pin down because he was so well liked.

He was the epitome of a small-town lawyer. He did a lot of free work for people. He knew his job. He was respected in the profession, he was a good neighbor and people liked him. They're from a prominent Indiana family. The other brother very likable. They had a lot of charisma and I became fairly well acquainted with them and I believe it's genuine. They're likable people. They're smarter than the average man and they were tougher to catch. It made the case very interesting. They had the money to hire the best legal talent, and got the best defense they could and then they went to prison.

INTERVIEWER

It sounds like the all-American family.

STEVE WHITE

They were the all-American boys. I had police information where they dabbled with drugs in junior high school, but they were the all-American boys. You would be very happy to sit down and talk to these people. They're interesting, they're engaging, they're sincere. They love their children. Smart. Nice. They broke the law and they knew better.

INTERVIEWER

Should they have [received] the kind of sentence they got?

STEVE WHITE

I think they should. It's one thing to catch somebody with 101 plant,s which is generally the threshold for federal prosecution, but these people kept it up. They kept it up after we knew that we were investigating. I think they felt they could get away with it. I don't think they thought we could put the case together.

There were a lot of people in the community that shielded them out of misplaced loyalty or genuine loyalty and maybe dislike of the police. Who knows? Maybe they identified with the pirates more than they did with the Royal Navy. I don't know. That's a subject to itself. But should they have gotten the sentences. Yes, they should have, because that sends a message out that the people of Indiana will not tolerate this type of behavior.

Why should we say it's OK for a guy to make $1 million raising marijuana? Who are the end users of this marijuana? Marijuana is the threshold drug. It's the drug that most children start out with. In respect of what you were talking about earlier about, is there really a difference between big marijuana and little marijuana? Remember there's two things about death and pregnancy, both being sort of final. Well, you could take the same view about marijuana. How much is enough? Too much.

INTERVIEWER

What do you see happening now with federal sentencing and the mandatory minimums?

STEVE WHITE

I think that the sentences are tougher, but I think the judges are more creative. I think you're seeing more alternative sentencing in marijuana cases. I think that if we trooped you in with a pound of crack, you would go to prison for 20 or 30 years. If we trooped you in with a 100 pounds of marijuana, you'd probably be doing some community service down at the Girl's Club teaching girls how to make documentary films and everybody would be better off.

You wouldn't be in prison. You wouldn't be a burden on the taxpayer. You'd still be holding a job, hopefully paying taxes. It's a philosophical thing with them that I disagree with, but you'd still be contributing to the community. The second time we got you, good-bye.

INTERVIEWER

How about the marijuana sentences? Are they proportionate to what violent criminals are getting?

STEVE WHITE

I cannot see somebody in there doing eight years for marijuana and a rapist being set free. Anybody that abuses another human being, I have a certain loathing for. There's a disparity there, but that's not with law enforcement. We don't make the laws and we don't sentence the offenders. All we do is catch people. A lot of these people that we're talking about have only done one thing wrong. You know what that is? They got caught.

INTERVIEWER

With your experience of working with growers, dealing with them, do you think that some kind of alternative sentencing in the marijuana area would work?

STEVE WHITE

Oh, I think it does work. I think particularly on the first offense, but you got to understand, the first offense is not the first time they did it. They may have done it for ten years, it's just the first tie we caught 'em.

But the judge has to sentence them from the facts in that case, and that's the law, and that's the way it should be and that's all the jury gets to hear if they go to trial. But it gets back to what I said earlier. A lot of these people have a skill. A lot of them have a legitimate job. And I believe they should be given a second chance. That's what America is. It's the land of the second chance. And these first time marijuana growers give them a second chance. Now the second time around I kind of take a harsher viewpoint.

INTERVIEWER

The guy who is growing ten plants in his closet, what do you feel is appropriate for something like that?

STEVE WHITE

Without knowing more facts on the case I couldn't tell you. What's his attitude? Was he violent to the police officers? Did he beat up his children when they protested the fact that he was growing marijuana? All these things have to figure in. If he's growing ten plants, let's say, just to make it a simple scenario, so he doesn't have to go out on the street, purchase marijuana, expose himself to the danger. I think the court would do well to consider alternative sentencing if there's an alternative there.

Does he have something to offer the community? Can he be punished and rehabilitated? Because, unfortunately, in this country we look for both. We never made up our mind. Do we want to punish these people or do we want to rehabilitate them? Almost 30 years in law enforcement, I have to believe some of them will never be rehabilitated. But quite a few can. And I've seen it happen and some times it's worth giving ten a break to rehabilitate one.

INTERVIEWER

What was it that led you to advocate alternative sentencing?

STEVE WHITE

I support alternative sentencing based on my experience with the marijuana traffickers in the Midwest. What I've seen the courts do here, in the Midwest, with alternative sentencing. Based on my past twenty years prior experience dealing with heroin and cocaine and amphetamine and LSD dealers. Some of who did me physical damage and some who I did physical damage. Because, they're violent people and I quite frequently hear the argument that narcotics traffickers shouldn't be in prison with violent people. You better wake up because most of them are violent people. And they'll hurt 'ya.

But these marijuana growers and traffickers, even though they have a substantial capitol investment in here and are not violent towards us (the police) here. In some other states they are. I can only speak [from] my experience. But they're not violent toward the police. They're not violent toward their confederates. They're not violent towards the citizens. Now, they're different than the people that come out of Chicago, or Cincinnati on the weekend to cut the fences and run their four wheels in here and pick as much as they can. These are people who have preserved these fields and do as little as possible to disturb the legitimate residents here. These are rural people and they mind their own business. They don't support crime and they were very supportive of us in our investigation. But they mind their own business. So that's the culture down here.

And these people are part of their culture and they take advantage of it. They have a place in the community and the courts. In one case I had 16 defendants in a marijuana conspiracy. Fourteen got alternative sentences. I agreed with that. It was Judge Sara Evans Barker in Indianapolis. She looked very much at what each individual had to offer the community and put them to work in the community.

Why put these people into a prison where they're going to get a master's or a Ph.D. in crime, which most of them haven't been exposed to anyway. They're just people growing marijuana. Give them a chance. Second time around? Sorry. No chance. First time, if they merit that break, give it to them. It's better for the community. Less people in the prison system. They're still out working and contributing. They're going to make an extra contribution whether it's picking up trash or teaching children or repairing toilets. That is a positive role. And I believe in that.

INTERVIEWER

Trigger point issues. Do you think that marijuana has become one of those?

STEVE WHITE

It's an emotional issue I think. It's right there with gays in the military and abortion. Everybody's got an opinion on it. When I started in law enforcement, the general opinion, particularly in the white middle class community was, "Marijuana? Send them to jail." Because they're probably black or Chicano to begin with. And it wasn't something that affected us. Now it touches everybody in America. And I don't think anybody doesn't have a family member in an extended family that hasn't been touched by it. So, there are some strong feelings.

A lot of times, I think they're irrational. I generally don't even talk to people about the subject. People find out that I was an agent, "What do you think of this?" I don't think about it very often. Because I don't know what I'm going to set off in these people and frankly I don't want to hear it. They don't, most cases, know as much about it as I do. They only know what happened to their nephew or their daughter. Or their son got beat up by the police. And maybe he did and maybe he didn't. I wasn't there, I don't know. But generally there's two sides to every question.

INTERVIEWER

And you hear from people who say you've got to send this guy away.

STEVE WHITE

Yes. There's not a particular middle ground. People just have very strong feelings about and I don't think anybody's unemotional about marijuana. People a little younger than myself who particularly grew up, probably from the late 60s on, they tried it. And they in their cases got through it no fault, no foul. No harm. But yet, when you talk to them ... I did a lot of public speaking when I was on the job, because I believe the public should be informed about this. And people would come up and say, "I do not want my children exposed to what I went through in the 60s, the 70s, the 80s." ... each one of them really sees it within the era that they were teenager, in college or this, that and the other. And they have strong opinions. Most of them, most people who are parents are anti-marijuana. There is no middle ground for them. And that's why, I think, you see a lot of things going the way they are.

INTERVIEWER

In Indiana and the Midwest, how are people balancing out in their opinion about marijuana right now?

STEVE WHITE

Well, this is the law and order part of the country. It is a pleasure to work here. Law enforcement is held in probably higher esteem here than any place I've ever been. And government here is, generally, very clean. People are hard working. I would say that it is probably more conservative than any place I've been, but I haven't been everywhere so I don't know. Certainly, I know when I was in the Southwest, I think it was kind of rites of passage for people to smoke marijuana there. Up here, even though it grew so abundantly, I've met a lot of people who [have] never smoked marijuana. There's a different attitude here.

INTERVIEWER

You think the fact that the people are different says something about marijuana itself?

STEVE WHITE

No. Not about marijuana. [It] says something about the people that like marijuana, but marijuana is still a weed.

INTERVIEWER

It sounds like what you're saying is you have one image as a person and as a law enforcement officer. Of people who use or deal with marijuana--you've come to have a slightly different view of that.

STEVE WHITE

Probably. I entered into it with not really much of any impression of marijuana growers. Because I hadn't been around them that much. To me, they were just another class of law breakers. And then, in the five years that I ran the program and when I did so much work with them and worked the investigations, I came to see them as a different breed of cat. They're still criminals, but they don't have some of the characteristics of all the others that I dealt with in the 20 years previously. You'll find disagreements within the marijuana irradication community and law enforcement. There are guys in Northern California will say you're nuts. People out here shoot at us regularly. People in southern Oregon. Troopers in Kentucky and agents over there. They have a lot of violence there and they have a different culture. But, we're talking about what I've experienced. And it's what I've experienced. They are different.

INTERVIEWER

Marijuana policy and law really is a hard area to talk about for many people. Why is this issue so hard for people to discuss?

STEVE WHITE

Well, because everybody has an opinion and it's based mostly on emotion rather than rationale. We decriminalized marijuana in this country in response with requests from other nations. At the turn of the century we were a source country for marijuana to North Africa and the Middle East. And they were under the Ottomans. They clamped down on marijuana production, hashish, hemp. And in return we signed treaties with them because we had a serious opiate and cocaine problem in this country from the Civil War on up. And we wanted to shut some of that traffic down.

All that was codified in the 1914 Harrison Narcotic Act, but it existed for a reason. It was there because at the time, it was a sincere problem. Whether we're not supplying marijuana to the Middle East, I doubt. But we're growing plenty for ourselves and it's better than what we import from Mexico and Colombia. So do we just roll over and play dead and say, "Hey, we give up?" That's non-tasters the American way. I do not believe that decriminalizing or legalizing is going to help in any way. The drug is still there. I do not care what people say. I talk to many people. It's an addictive drug. If not, physically, psychologically to make people have to have it every day. To get the heart started. To mellow out at the end of the day. I think it's a dangerous drug. I don't think it does any good. Period. It makes you feel better. Take your shoes off, put your feet in some hot water and that will help too.

But it's a tough issue. We have to look at the history. We have to go back in time as to why it happened. Like the 30s, we had gotten carried away with it. We got into that period of excess. Not only in the enforcement of the law but in the educational information that we put out on it. And that lasted through the 5's. The 6's came along and destroyed a lot of the myths about it. But, on the other hand, they have also because of the research done down at the University of Mississippi show that it's a carcinogen, there's no health value to it. [It has] 400 carcinogens in it. A lot more than tobacco does. And five times the potency. When you take that, coupled with the fact that marijuana burns at a higher temperature, it's dangerous. I see no benefit to it.

INTERVIEWER

You're not for decriminalization or legalization. But it seems fair to say that you would like to see room made to step back and look at this whole area a little more objectively and calmly without so much emotion in the way we think about marijuana.

STEVE WHITE

Let me put it to you this way. We probably spend more in this country to advertise coffee in one day than we do on marijuana research. We need more done in that area. The American public deserves the facts. What is this drug? The arguments are still, if you read the prior issue of High Times, some very good arguments for medical marijuana in there. But they're also shot with a couple of fallacies that I find. We need somebody people can believe in. To actually say this is what it does. This is what it doesn't do and try and take some of the emotion out of it. It has become too emotional an issue to too many people. But to say that I would ever be for decriminalization. There's no evidence that I've seen at this point in time that would make me go along with that.

 

 
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