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Geographers Use GIS Technology to Go One Up in the War on Drugs


West Virginia’s hot, humid and rainy summer this year couldn’t have made for better conditions for the under-the-radar marijuana growers who give law enforcement fits in the Mountain State.

Authorities last year confiscated 70,000 plants, and the West Virginia State Police are predicting to at least do that in 2004.

In a state topped by hard-to-get-to mountaintops and slashed by rugged ravines and isolated valleys, the challenge isn’t always knowing where the pot is today. The trick is in knowing where it might be cultivated tomorrow. Or next week. Or next growing season.

Two West Virginia University geographers are attempting to go one up in the war on drugs by doing just that. Dr. Trevor Harris and Dr. Briane Turley are using known data about marijuana sites across the Mountain State – then applying Geographic Information System (GIS) technology and fine-tuning it, to project those areas favorable for growing the plant that began its life in the tropics.

GIS is an aerial photograph times 10 or 20.

The technology provides researchers with a three-dimensional view of a targeted site, offering electronic data that takes in everything from the height and slope of mountains and valleys to the mapping of streets and highways. Researchers are able to electronically “layer” in bits of data, making for a comprehensive study of a site that goes well beyond geography and aerial surveillance.

Harris and Turley’s GIS work was bolstered recently with a $221,000 research grant from the Georgia Institute of Technology. Georgia Tech, like WVU, is part of a federal drug-fighting consortium sponsored by the National Guard Bureau’s Counter Drug Program, a sweeping, federal effort to rid the U.S. of illegal drugs.

Call it a digital leveling of the playing field, said Harris, a soft-spoken
Britisher who heads the University’s Department of Geology and Geography and is co-director of the State GIS Technical Center. “We’re looking at new ways to target those areas that growers might decide to use,” Harris said. In other words, he said, not where the drugs are – but where they aren’t. Not yet.

Places, Turley seconded, that will most likely provide future yields of the crops that will be turned into illegal contraband. “We’re working on gridding out the places that are attractive to growers just because the conditions are right,” said Turley, a two-time Fullbright scholar and geography professor whose professional interests range from rights-of-way to religion. “It might be because the elevation is right,” Turley continued, “or because the terrain conditions and sunlight are suitable. It might be just because a site is off a back road and down some out-of-the-way hollow.”

The duo can’t divulge a lot of the particulars of their work because it’s classified. But they do hope, however, that their efforts speak loud and clear with on-the-record results. They hope to soon be talking about home-grown drug trafficking in the past tense. “We’re looking at all these particulars, and are bringing them together,” Turley said of the new predictor models. “We’re looking at weather and elevation. We’re looking at water and roads.”

For Harris, the technology is both practical – and tactical. “It’s not perfect,” he said. “It can never replace the gut and intuition of a good investigating officer. But when you combine the two, you have a real advantage. Right now we have very limited resources in the war on drugs, so every advantage most definitely counts.”

| newswise
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