A police operation that uncovered marijuana plants in Sussex County has been hit with a backlash of criticism on social media.
Numerous commenters wrote that the 2-month investigation involving 10 law enforcement groups was a waste of time and money, and many called for police to focus instead on the heroin epidemic and child molesters.
“Pot??? Come on, let's do something about the heroin issue. Waste of resources,” wrote one of 115 commentors, all but a handful opposed to the counterdrug effort dubbed Operation Summer Harvest.
Milton Police Chief Robert J. Longo headed the operation that included officers from Ocean View, Dagsboro, Georgetown, Selbyville, Delmar, the Delaware National Guard, Delaware State Police and the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control.
Longo said he understands people consider the operation a waste of money, but growing marijuana is still illegal in Delaware.
“Until I'm told growing marijuana is legal, we're going to tackle it just like any other issue,” Longo said.
Longo said there were about a dozen officers who worked together to find 107 marijuana plants worth an estimated $214,000 at an undisclosed location. Longo said no charges have been filed.
Two Milton officers spent nine hours on the pot bust at a cost of $360, Longo said. The cost came out of state grant money, he said, not Milton's budget.
Ocean View Police Chief Kenneth McLaughlin said his department's expense was similar to Milton's; he paid for his officers out of grant money meant to combat violent crime.
Georgetown and Delmar each had one officer who participated as members of a Drug Enforcement Agency task force, which paid their salaries. A DEA spokesman would not say how much task force officers were paid.
Sgt. John McDerby of Fish and Wildlife Natural Resources Police said two agents participated to protect state land from illegal marijuana crops. The cost was about $300 for 13 hours of work, a DNREC official said.
“Often times these illegal grow sites lead to trash and chemical waste from herbicides and fertilizers that are used and left behind, affecting streams and ponds,” McDerby said. “These chemicals could potentially sicken or kill wildlife.”
In other states, McDerby said, snares and traps have been set on public property to injure people or animals that get too close to a marijuana crop.
No plants were found in a state wildlife area, he noted, and no animals have been reported sick or injured.
On Aug. 12, a Delaware State Police helicopter with two troopers aboard responded to a Sussex County site after officers narrowed in on an area with dense vegetation. The helicopter spotted the marijuana plants from above, and directed officers to the site, Longo said.
Sgt. Richard Bratz of the Delaware State Police said the helicopter spent 40 minutes at the site at a cost of $639 – a prorated cost of the $913-per-hour rate. The total cost for the troopers was $49, he said.
Using local agency estimates – not including the DEA task force – the total local expense was less than $5,000.
Brad Eaby, a candidate for lieutenant governor, who was among the majority questioning the operation, said costs go beyond expenses associated with a drug bust. Millions of dollars are spent prosecuting and incarcerating people in connection with marijuana use, he said.
He notes that public sentiment is shifting in favor of legalizing marijuana, and he proposes legalizing marijuana sales as a way to raise revenue for Delaware.
“The general population doesn't want to treat this as a crime anymore,” he said. “In the next two to three years, I think we'll see a lot of movement on this front.”
Eaby said he was disappointed with a recent federal decision to keep marijuana in the same drug category as heroin and other narcotics. Instead, he said, marijuana is comparable to tobacco and alcohol, and should be regulated and taxed the same way they are.
More missions expected
Longo said he intends to continue to work with other police departments to combat illegal marijuana operations because it's a great way for smaller police departments to pool resources to improve the community. “I don't think it was a waste of time. It disrupted someone's operation,” Longo said.
But, he said, it doesn't mean police are ignoring the heroin epidemic. He asks anyone with solid information on drug dealing in Milton to share it with his department. A person can remain anonymous, but police need proof that someone is selling heroin, not just hearsay.
“If you know there's a problem, then help us solve the problem,” he said. “I'm reaching my hand out in a partnership to solve this problem.”