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  Last year more people used the County's forest preserves than visited Yellowstone National Park.

Police burn $12 million worth of pot

Thursday, September 29, 2005
Daily Southtown
by Jim Hook

This summer's drought wasn't just hard on Illinois farmers.

It also took a toll on this year's marijuana crop ó at least the plants found in five different plots in the Cook County forest preserves.

The 6,000 marijuana plants authorities burned Wednesday were considerably smaller than the plants plucked in previous years from forest preserve land, according to Forest Preserve District Police Chief Richard Waszak.

Waszak said the plants were burned as part of the Forest Preserve District's Cannabis Eradication and Suppression Program. The plants had a street value of $12 million.

He said in 2000, which was the first year of the eradication program, authorities burned marijuana plants with a street value four times this year's amount.

"This year was tough on all Illinois farmers," Waszak said. "And I consider these people who grow these plants to be farmers. They were farming an illegal crop. And we harvested it before they had a chance to."

No one has been arrested in connection with the marijuana plants, but Waszak said "arrests are imminent."

The forest preserve district police had help with the eradication effort from the federal Drug Enforcement Administration; Illinois State Police; the Cook County sheriff's police; the Illinois Air National Guard; Dyer, Ind., police and the Lake County (Ind.) sheriff's department.

DEA Special Agent Pete Probst said authorities had many of the plots under surveillance since the spring.

"In good years, when there is an abundance of rain, these plants can grow to be 14 feet or higher," Probst said.

The plants authorities burned Wednesday were about 6 feet tall.

Authorities doused wooden pallets with diesel fuel to get the fire going before throwing bundles of the green plants onto the flames.

A thick greenish-brown smoke rose toward the sky, but it disappeared within minutes.

The green plants emitted a strong minty scent before they were burned.

Probst said the number of marijuana plants grown in the United States ó and local forest preserves ó has increased since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

"It's too hard to get the stuff across the border now," he said. "And this is no ditch weed.

"We find empty milk jugs and fertilizer where these plants are growing," Probst said. "They're taking time to care for these plants."

He said authorities use helicopters, electronic surveillance and forest preserve police on foot and on all-terrain vehicles to find the plants.

"They're not easy to find," Probst said. "But we are determined to make a dent in this. And I think we've done a lot more than make a dent."

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