Authorities hit the marijuana trail


A photo caption on the front page of The Sun yesterday incorrectly stated the name of Rob Dewberry, head of the Baltimore County Narcotics Unit.

The Sun regrets the error.

When drug investigators declared war on cocaine and heroin dealers in the mid-1980s, they overlooked the likes of Christopher Ecker.

As police chased violent gangs dealing the harder drugs, Mr. Ecker's marijuana sales operation, federal prosecutors contend, flourished from Virginia to New York.

Police found that nationally marijuana cultivation and sales were operating in a virtual haven. That booming business now is attracting new police attention.

In Maryland, and across the nation, pot again has become a growing social and law enforcement problem -- one that has sent state, local and federal investigators back after the forbidden weed.

Federal investigators spent more than three years pursuing Mr. Ecker. This summer, they will tell a federal court jury in Baltimore that Mr. Ecker's enterprise imported more than 300,000 pounds of marijuana and probably brought in as much as $150 million in sales. Mr. Ecker is charged with conspiracy to distribute marijuana and other offenses.

In recent months, narcotics officers in Maryland have made arrests in several major marijuana cases. And they say they are building similar cases against others suspected of being major dealers.

The marijuana now being sold is a more potent and dangerous descendant of the drug millions of young Americans experimented with in college during the '60s and '70s, police said. The profits can be enormous, and dealers are trying to capitalize by pushing it hard in every direction, they say.

Police in Maryland made twice as many marijuana arrests last year as in 1990, and they destroyed double the number of plants -- a rate that has followed national patterns.

vTC Teachers say they are discovering plastic bags of marijuana on students more frequently during hallway checks. Police are finding more of it during routine traffic stops. And the quantities of marijuana seized by authorities at airports and through the mails have boomed.

Marijuana-related emergency room visits are another indicator of change. In the Baltimore area, such visits have tripled in the past four years. 'It just seems every time you turn around, there's marijuana there," said Sgt. Eugene Winters, who runs the state's marijuana eradication program.

As pot has become more potent -- at least three to five times stronger than it was 20 years ago -- it has commanded higher prices, he said. "They've been able to cultivate a crop that will literally knock your socks off," Sergeant Winters said. In the 1970s, marijuana sold for about $100 a pound. It usually takes $1,200 to $1,800 to buy that amount now, and the price can go as high as $3,000.

Police believe marijuana's reputation as a safe drug has played a role in its resurgence.

'Not a stigma'

"There is not a stigma toward marijuana use," said Valerie Hicks, an analyst with the criminal intelligence division of the Maryland State Police. "We feel people may be switching because they think it's a softer drug with little harmful effects and the penalties are not as great."

The main ingredient in marijuana, a chemical called THC, for tetrahydrocannabinol, affects the brain and circulatory system, and can cause the heart to beat dangerously fast. It also can affect memory, balance and the senses.

National studies show a significant increase in marijuana use among 8th, 10th and 12th graders. The dangers of the more potent drug for young people, combined with ambivalence among parents, have many worried. "Many of these parents themselves smoked marijuana -- perhaps they experimented in high school or college," said Fred Garcia, deputy director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy in Washington. "Their lives turned out OK, so they're unsure exactly what to tell their kids."

Fueling marijuana's popularity among young people is the newest trend -- "blunts" -- oversized joints rolled in cigar wrapping that can contain as much marijuana as six regular joints.

For dealers, more sophisticated growing and shipping methods have helped the marijuana trade become a year-round business.

"If you know what you're doing -- with a little labor and some Yankee ingenuity -- it can be very lucrative," said Sergeant Winters.

Police seize assets

The profit potential also is making marijuana a more appealing target for police because the expensive homes, cars and other assets of convicted dealers can be forfeited to the police departments who arrest them.

Police contend Christopher Ecker's marijuana operation was the largest cracked in Maryland. Like most of the marijuana that arrives here, Mr. Ecker's was imported, police say.

He used sailboats to bring in the drug from South America, Mexico, Jamaica and Thailand, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney James Alsup. Besides being shipped to points along the Chesapeake Bay, Mr. Ecker also arranged drop points on the Outer Banks of North Carolina and in Oregon, according to Mr. Alsup.

Federal authorities say they could be confiscating as much as $5 million in assets from the Ecker enterprise.

Two weeks ago, federal prosecutors charged a Baltimore County man, who they say used a bogus contracting business to hide a major marijuana network, with drug conspiracy and money laundering. County narcotics officers, who began the investigation in summer 1992, believe that the ring distributed more than three tons of marijuana and a similar amount of hashish -- mostly in Maryland, but sometimes to as far as the West Coast and Canada.

Last week, state police said they confiscated 432 pounds of marijuana from a tractor-trailer on Interstate 95 near Havre de Grace, the second-largest amount they have seized.

Many other investigations are in the pipeline. And even some small investigations are yielding large quantities of pot.

"We seized 60 pounds just last week in Perry Hall -- that's $90,000 right there," said Det. Don Coburn, a Baltimore County narcotics investigator who specializes in marijuana cases.

More agents

Not long ago, the Baltimore office of the Drug Enforcement Administration had no agents who worked marijuana cases exclusively. Now there are several. That change reflects a mandate in the DEA to bring a more balanced approach to drug investigations.

"We're getting better at identifying marijuana plots, and we're applying our resources in a more focused fashion," said Robert Penland, assistant special agent in charge of the DEA office in Baltimore. "It doesn't mean we're going to walk away from cocaine. We've just changed our focus to a more balanced and local view of problems."

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