KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - The Tennessee National Guard recently teamed up with the U.S. Department of Justice Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Aviation Division’s Mobile Cannabis Eradication Response Team (M-CERT) in support of an annual cannabis (marijuana) eradication program better known as “ERAD.”
The ongoing program is part of a combined effort of the Governor’s Task Force on Marijuana Eradication (GTFME), which includes members of the Tennessee National Guard Counter Drug Task Force (TNCDTF), to crack down on illegal marijuana grows across the state of Tennessee.
The particular partnership between the DEA and the GTFME concentrated the team’s efforts specifically on the eastern regions of Tennessee.
Since 2005, Tennessee has been included within the top seven states for marijuana cultivation deemed by the DEA as an “M7 state.”
A mobile command post, which is deployed throughout the United States in support of eradication efforts was set up at the Army Aviation Support Facility (AASF#2) located on McGhee Tyson ANG Base for operations.
"This is our office away from our office,” said one special agent.
He demonstrated how it had everything needed for the agents to get the job done while they are away from their normal work areas.
Several Army National Guard pilots from the 230th Air Cavalry Squadron located at McGhee Tyson worked with the M-CERT providing additional aircraft and manpower to further support the combined effort.
The OH-58D Kiowa Warrior helicopters flown by the soldiers are very agile single-rotor aircraft and are well-suited for the rugged mountainous terrain of East Tennessee.
“It’s sometimes tricky around mountainous regions with pop-up storms and low visibility making it harder to locate the grows. Even time of day can change the visual from up there. The plants may not be as visible if there are shadows, and rain or dew on them can make them appear different too,” said one DEA special agent/pilot.
The pilots and spotters rely on their trained eyes to find the majority of the plants but sometimes it is just “the luck of the draw” when they find the illegal crops.
“About two years ago, we were turning to head back in after a long day of spotting when out of the corner of our eye we see a grow,” stated one special agent. “By pure accident we located a DTO (Drug Trafficking Organization) grow.”
“The spotter usually lets me know what altitude they would like to fly and I will keep it at that altitude … usually what is more comfortable for them to be able to spot from is where I will fly," stated one DEA special agent/pilot.
The spotter’s job is to visually make contact with the crops and relay coordinates for law enforcement on the ground.
Getting the “all clear” to launch aircraft after a delay due to questionable weather the pilots and spotters went to work doing their routine pre-flight checks prior to takeoff.
Working in pairs, they took to the skies to seek out the illegal plants, then radioed their locations to drug law enforcement on the ground for further search and seizure.
This was the first deployment to East Tennessee for the DEA M-CERT and was a very successful operation. Two-thousand six-hundred cannabis plants were eradicated, resulting in three arrests and the seizure of several firearms.
This success can be directly attributed to the cooperation and ceaseless efforts of the DEA M-CERT, GTFME, and the TNCDTF.