Appalachia: Under the Gun

In May the Federal Government designated 65 counties of Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia in the Appalachian Mountain Range, a High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA). This means that the DEA, ATF, FBI, IRS, National Park Service, US Forest Service and the US Attorney's Office will act in collusion with each other, and the local sheriffs, police departments, and DAs to stomp out all forms of drug production, trafficking and use. The designation also comes with a $6 million federal grant as "seed money" to set up the new agency with staff, computer equipment, offices and the typical array of vehicles.

If past experiences are any guide to what the residents of Appalachia can expect, the alphabet soup of law enforcement agencies will setup road blocks on rural roads to perform search and seizure sweeps, armed men in camouflage with automatic weapons will patrol by helicopter, and a small army of undercover narcs will set up local men and women for big time arrest.

Poverty and Little Economic Opportunity Cited As Reason

Labeling 65 counties in 3 states as a High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area would seem to imply that violent gangs and Colombian drug cartels were terrorizing millions of residents of Appalachia, necessitating a massive federal response. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.

In the official "Appalachia HIDTA FY 98 - Threat Abstract," the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) states that Appalachia warrants a federal crackdown because "in this tri-state area financial development is limited, poverty is rampant, and jobs are few. Marijuana has become a substantial component of the local economy, surpassing even tobacco as the largest cash crop. This has contributed to a high level of community acceptance of marijuana production, distribution, and consumption. Many honest local merchants do not recognize signs of illegal drug enterprises and in effect help launder drug proceeds. In such an environment eradication and interdiction efforts are difficult, as is obtaining intelligence, indictments, or an unbiased jury." In other words, people are poor, locals are not that concerned about residents who are doing this, and people are not informing on their friends and neighbors to the extent that the government desires.

The economic stress felt by the residents of Appalachia is not adequately described in the ONDCP's "Threat Assessment." In reviewing the latest census data, one quickly notices that these citizens are not just poor, this is one of the most economically deprived regions of America. West Virginia ranks dead-last (50th) for median household income and unemployment (48.6% of the civilian population was unemployed in 1996 - of course, prisoners aren't counted). Kentucky and Tennessee are also in the bottom 10% of the nation for median household income. They rank 8th and 11th, respectively, in the nation for the highest number of infant deaths per 1,000 live births. In fact the only categories where these three states lead the nation is in the percent of public aid recipients, the percent of population living below the poverty line, and in teen pregnancy. Of course, the 65 counties designated as HIDTA, have fared even worse.

The New War on the Poor

In the 1960s, federal officials toured Appalachia and witnessed its tragic poverty. The attention brought to it, shocked America which was enjoying an era of unprecedented economic growth and prosperity. Together, the federal government and the people of America vowed to fight a War on Poverty so that all Americans would have an equal opportunity in life. In that era, roads were built, schools provided and utilities-clean water and electricity reached deep into Appalachia to bring relief. In the 1990s, we live in another era of unprecedented economic prosperity, yet this new War on Poverty has taken an ominous turn, courtesy of the War on Drugs.

Rather than respond to the economic disparity which still plagues most of the region, with investment and development, the federal government intends to respond by arresting fathers and mothers, seizing family homes, cars and businesses, creating a whole new generation of Drug War Orphans. Make no mistake, we could be providing schoolbooks instead of cell blocks, and small business loans instead of cash-payments to "confidential informants."

In South America, the Agency for International Development (USAID) gives hundreds of millions of dollars each year to peasant farmers in Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia in order to induce them to stop growing coca, opium poppies and cannabis. At home, however, our government will arrest and confiscate the land of anyone caught doing this, thereby accelerating the downward spiral of poverty in Appalachia.

Citizen Observation Groups Can Work

Forewarned is forearmed, or so the saying goes. Gathering together the forces of the US Government to pounce on Appalachia will take time perhaps up to an entire year. A lot can happen in one year, and if the citizens of the HIDTA counties exercise their civil right to influence their local government, the states involved can reject federal plans.

In Northern California, residents have turned out to oppose aggressive marijuana eradication, because of the negative community impact it has. Forming "Citizens Observation Groups," locals have documented government helicopters violating federal laws on flying altitude; environmental regulations; endangered species protection; and kept track of illegal search and seizure operations including the number of children that have been terrified by the men with face paint and automatic guns. More importantly, by documenting police actions, they have been able to raise awareness within their own communities and present a united front to their local government. This united front eventually lead to county supervisors voting to reject funding for the program.

In any town or county, local governments can use their budgetary powers to prevent their sheriff and police departments from implementing aggressive policing that will harm their citizenry. Elected officials are there to serve the local people, not the federal government. Of course, it requires people assert their rights and make sure their council members know they will not be re-elected if they permit their citizens to be abused. Photos, video tapes, and sworn depositions are all inexpensive ways to begin the process that will protect you and your families from becoming part of the 2 million citizens that will be incarcerated by the year 2000. Educating your neighbors on the need to provide education and investment, instead of prison cells and police power is next. Eventually, lawsuits, public attention and voter power can be brought together to make this democracy of ours work the way it was intended.