Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Reporter spoon fed by DEA flunks Journalism 101

The Washington Post story, Illegal Crops Creep Into the Suburbs by Kari Lydersen, is another example of mediocre journalism in covering a drug story. Lydersen covers Chicago for the Post.

Her story is that some 18 patches of marijuana totaling 60,000 plants were discovered and eradicated from the Crabtree Forest Preserve in northwest Cook County, about a dozen miles northwest of O'Hare airport. She reports that DEA says they were worth $30 million! That is $500 per plant.

I had some questions about the story which I emailed to her. She ignored my questions which follow:

Kari Lydersen,
Staff Writer
Washington Post

Re: Illegal Crops Creep Into the Suburbs
Aug. 5, 2007
p. A14

Dear Ms. Lydersen:

Your report from Illinois was very interesting.

Obviously Joanna Zoltay from DEA was extremely helpful to you in preparing your story.

From 1979 through 1988, I was counsel to the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on the Judiciary responsible for overseeing DEA and other federal law enforcement agencies. I accompanied DEA representatives on field investigations along the border, in Florida, and in South America and the Caribbean, at the DEA El Paso Intelligence Center, and at DEA Headquarters in Washington. Unfortunately, there were occasions in which DEA officials lied to me and the Members of Congress for whom I worked about various aspects of their operations.

Was there anything about their characterization of this operation that around your journalistic skepticism?

Were you able to go to any of the eradicated fields to see how large they were or to examine the cultivators' campsite or look closely at any of the eradicated cannabis before it was burned?

$30 million dollars is a great deal of money. By any chance did DEA's spokesperson(s) show you the arithmetic DEA used to arrive at that sum? If there were actually 60,000 plants (was this a count or an estimate?), that would require that each plant generate $500.

How much saleable marijuana would each plant produce to be worth $500? Does that pricing make sense to you?

Does the value per plant depend upon the size of the plant? How tall does a plant have to be to be worth $500?

"Some" of these 60,000 plants, you report, were 8 feet tall. Does "some" mean ten plants, one hundred plants, one thousand, six thousand, 30,000 plants?
How tall were the typical plants?
How tall were the shortest plants, and how many were there?
Did DEA give you any of this background?

One of the important facts in your story was in the next to last paragraph in which one source told you that he picked "garbage" marijuana that grew wild on a nearby lake when he was a youngster.

What is unclear from your report is whether any of the marijuana in these 18 different fields was of this "garbage" variety, also called "ditchweed." DEA in its 2006 annual report on its domestic marijuana eradication program notes that reveals that perhaps 98 percent of all eradicated marijuana is ditchweed (and not worth $500 per plant) nationwide, with enormous variation by state, but most of that coming from Indiana.

Would it be relevant to your story to report why easily grown plants -- 60,000 plants grown by a handful of men over a season -- could be worth $500 each? Or is that too obvious to explain?

Certainly when criminal organizations set up high-profit growing operations in park and recreation areas it creates a danger to park users. I live 5 houses from the very large Rock Creek Park in Maryland that connects to Rock Creek Park in D.C., and my family uses the parks all the time. The safety of parks is very important to me.

Can you imagine what expansion of DEA's activities (or other marijuana enforcement activities) could change the economics so that it would no longer be enormously profitable to grown marijuana in public nature preserves? Would it have helped or hurt your story if you had inquired whether, if the legislature and Congress legalized the cultivation and use of marijuana and people could grow their own, this would end the practice of hiding illegal marijuana cultivation in the parks?

I helped write the federal law in 1986 that provides a mandatory minimum federal sentence for growing more than 1000 marijuana plants. From your reporting do you think that such a law is having any deterrent effect? Or is such a law a central feature of the economic structure that makes a single marijuana plant worth $500?

Certainly when criminal organizations set up high-profit growing operations in park and recreation areas it creates a danger to park users. Do you think that raids such as this are making parks safer?

Sincerely yours,
Eric E. Sterling, J.D.
Criminal Justice Policy Foundation

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Anonymous said...

60,000 plants totalling $30,000,000 is $500 per plant. (500*60,000=30,000,000) Apparently someone flunked math 101 also.

zombiepsychic said...

Thank you not for fighting for marijuana rights (which I am a strong advocate), but for taking to task a lazy lazy journalist.

This kind of journalism is at the heart of this backwards FOX news style journalism and someone, anyone needs to fight this good fight.

Thank you!

Anonymous said...

60k plants at 1.5 lbs dried per plant... thats 90,000 lbs of DRIED cannabis... prior to curing it would weigh much more than that. 45 tons of cultivated marijuana? What a joke. Ditchweed it is.

The DEA loves to play games with their numbers.