Geographers use GIS to fight drugs

Geographers use GIS to fight drugs

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Two West Virginia University (WVU) geographers are using GIS technology to project areas favorable for growing marijuana. West Virginia’s hot, humid and rainy summer this year couldn’t have made for better conditions for the 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 inaccessible 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, 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 GIS technology and fine-tuning it, to project those areas favorable for growing the plant that began its life in the tropics. 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.