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WHEATFIELD -- It's marijuana season again, and that means law enforcement officials have begun searching trenches, roadways and farm fields in Northwest Indiana for the ditch weed.

Marijuana was a government-subsidized crop during World Wars I and II when authorities used the hemp to make rope.

Eventually the government didn't need it for rope, but marijuana became the most widely used and readily available drug in the United States.

As a result, the Drug Enforcement Administration initiated a program to aggressively halt the spread of ditch weed and cultivated marijuana through an eradication program where it targets the weed and cultivated marijuana grown indoors and outdoors in the middle of farm fields from May to November.

Last year, the DEA spent $13 million to support 96 state and local agencies actively trying to get rid of the drug. Locally, state police get $330,000 each year to fight the drug.

Indiana State Police Trooper Don Hartman and Tom Korniak, a Barkley Township farmer who works with the Jasper County Weed Board Eradication program, began spraying the weed in Jasper County last month.

"This is a very hardy plant," Hartman said, adding the seed can lay dormant 7 to 10 years then sprout.

"It's very difficult to kill," he said. "Once it goes to seed, it's spread by animals, birds or the wind. You have to actually destroy the seed and sterilize it, but it's not possible. We spray the plant but we have to keep checking the same area to see if it's really gone."

Police said people used to come from across the country, armed with a handwritten map, to pick the weed in Newton and Jasper counties. Police also said it used to be possible to drive along a country road and reach out and grab an armload of the weed.

Now finding the plants involves detective work.

Wild marijuana looks much like any other weed -- it's emerald green in color with small, jagged-teeth leaves.

Although state police said there is not much ditch weed in Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties, they'll search for cultivated plants later in the summer. Authorities are even more concerned about cultivated plants, those grown indoors and transplanted to farm fields hidden among corn and soybeans, growing 15 to 18 feet tall and only visible by helicopter.

Police said about a pound of cultivated marijuana is worth about $1,500 on the street.

"A few years ago, the jails were packed with people who came to pick ditch weed," Hartman said. "We'd get phone calls about strange cars in the area or a hotel manager would call and say that someone from a different state was there, and we'd do a surveillance the next day. That's not true anymore. You don't see people coming from all over the country. We believe we've had some success."

Almost 10 years ago, police destroyed about 23 million hemp plants in the state with a street value of $10 billion.

At least one Wheatfield farm family was surprised to see the ditch weed growing along the fence next to their corn crop. They said they had heard from police that people were coming to their farm searching for the ditch weed.

"We can't see them from the house," said the wife, who wished to remain anonymous. "They go between the bins and if it's dark outside, we never know they've been here. We don't go looking for it ourselves."

Dawn Patrick, 20, of Wheatfield, a junior at Southern Indiana University, was helping police spray for the second consecutive year. "I don't know anyone who has come to pick it, but we had heard that people would come look for it," she said.

Patrick is part of a crew of college students working each summer to spray the plants. The students work in pairs with one driving and the other hosing the plants down with the herbicide.

It takes about four to five hours for the plants to shrivel and die once they're sprayed.

Hartman said if someone picked the ditch weed after it's sprayed they won't die -- but they'll definitely be pretty sick.

"They won't get the same high," Hartman said, with a chuckle.

Carmen McCollum can be reached at carmenm@howpubs.com or (219) 662-5327.

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