AJC Deja News: Georgia governor roots out marijuana crops (1984)

A review of the news that made The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s front pages through the decades.

Today’s AJC Deja News comes to you from the Thursday, March 22, 1984, edition of The Atlanta Constitution.


Georgia Governor Joe Frank Harris declared all-out war in 1984. On pot.

He even had a cool name for his battalion: The Governor’s Special Strike Force on Drug Suppression. Its logo? “A bright green marijuana leaf with a helicopter superimposed on it, the propeller tearing through the plant,” Constitution reporter Celia W. Dugger wrote in her article detailing the state’s plan to root out pot in the Peach State.

Credit: AJC Newspaper Archives

Credit: AJC Newspaper Archives

“More than 200 state employees this spring will be swooping over Georgia in helicopters and planes,” Dugger continued, “hiking into remote wooded areas, and harvesting for destruction one of the state’s most lucrative cash crops -- marijuana.”

The governor had just empowered the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to “enlist and organize the resources of other state departments to combat marijuana growing.”

Now, fast-forward 35 years. Georgia legislators are considering bills this session to allow medical marijuana to be grown in the state and sold to patients.

Credit: Mike Snook / Special to AJC

Credit: Mike Snook / Special to AJC

The Georgia Hemp Farm Act, HB 213, would provide for licensing and permit requirements for hemp growers and hemp processors. HB 324 would permit medical marijuana growing, manufacturing, testing and distribution at 60 dispensaries.

» Live: Use the AJC's tracker to follow Georgia bills

The AJC's Mark Niesse writes in a March 5 article that the "dispensaries would serve the state's rising number of physician-approved medical marijuana patients — more than 8,400 so far. Marijuana would remain illegal for recreational use."

Growing legal cannabis wouldn’t be cheap.

“Initial licenses would cost $150,000 for large companies, $37,500 for smaller companies and $30,000 for retailers,” Niesse writes. “Businesses would also have to pay annual license renewal fees ranging from $10,000 to $50,000.”

Credit: BILLY DOWNS / AJC File

Credit: BILLY DOWNS / AJC File

In our March 1984 report, GBI Director Phil Peters told the Constitution that in 1983, “state and local officials uprooted more than 660,000 marijuana plants with a street value of more than $291 million, and arrested 140 people in connection with the seizures.”

Attitudes towards marijuana and laws regulating it have relaxed in the U.S. since the '80s. Washington D.C. and 10 states -- Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont and Washington -- have all legalized recreational marijuana use. Georgia's medical marijuana law, passed in 2015, allows patients to possess and use marijuana with less than 5 percent THC, but it remains illegal to buy, sell or transport it. THC is the main psychoactive component of the cannabis plant.

When the AJC asked Georgians in January 2018 if marijuana should be legalized for any use, 50% of respondents said yes, 46% said no and 3% said they didn't know. According to an October 2018 Gallup poll, 66% of Americans support legalizing pot.

As for Governor Harris' anti-drug team, it's still operating -- just under a different name: the Governor's Task Force on Drug Suppression. Gone is the old "Strike Force" designation. Additionally, the Georgia Department of Public Safety now oversees the state's eradication/suppression program instead of the GBI.

While societal norms and marijuana laws have changed in the past 35 years, the GTF’s methods for finding and confiscating illegal marijuana crops is much the same as it was in the mid-’80s. Trained pilots look for pot plants from the air while folks on the ground seek it out and yank it up by the roots.

“We’re going to do it the old-fashioned way,” GBI Director Peters told the AJC in 1984. “By hand.”

Staff writer Mark Niesse contributed to this article.



In this highly irregular series, we scour the AJC archives for the most interesting news from days gone by, show you the original front page and update the story.

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