Hard-pressed by "revenooers," high sugar prices and a changing Southern culture, Appalachian moonshiners are turning from marketing mash to marijuana.
Federal Treasury agents, who in the past year have smashed the smallest number of stills since the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, report they are finding more and more marijuana patches as they crawl through the hills and gullies where they used to find the high-oclane product that contented an older generation.
Ninety-seven per cent of the 557 stills seized nationwide last year were in North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, Virginia, Mississippi, Tennessee and Florida. Most of the stills were found in the Appalachian Mountains, and it is there that federal, state and local authorities claim they have unearthed the moonshine marijuana connection.
"With marijuana becoming so damn popular, they're plantin' acres of it," said Warren McConnell, a veteran of 26 years of still-smashing for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, McConnell now serves as the Treasury Department division's Washington spokesman.
Like local and state officials, John Westra, special agent in charge of ATF's North Carolina bureau, said he is finding a "tremendous interest increase" in evidence that "our liquor-law violators are pursuing careers in marijuana."
In the past year, Westra's agents have found only 90 stills - down from 1,200 annually 15 years ago, he says. However, the veteran still-chasers have found at least 20 patches of marijuana this year, some of it planted inconspicuously in the rows of corn that used to end up being hauled from the ridgetops in liquid form. This is a new phenomenon, they say.
Sheriff Bill G. Anderson of Wilkes County, N.D., a Blue Ridge Mountain area that once produced a surplus of 'shine that was hauled in souped'up cars throughout the East Coast, says moonshining is nearly dead there. But last year, Anderson, aided by airplanes, paid informers and two fulltime marijuana sleuths, pulled 57,000 plants.
"That set the North Carolina record," Anderson claims proudly, Westra says the marijuana-growing was linked in many cases to former or current moonshiners.
ATF agent Dan Hall of Danville, Va., has noticed that people from Wilkes County are now crossing the border to Franklin County, Va., which the ATF claims is the nation's "hot spot" of moonshine production, to get a drink.
Hall also has spotted the pot-corn connection. "A while back we put some boys out who were runnin' the largest still captured in the country, and they went right back into marijuana," he said. "Three years ago one of our frequent liquor violators was caught with two acres of marijuana."
In Tennessee, senior state narcotics officer Taylor Bettis believes there is a mountain moonshiner-Mexican marijuana connection. "One of our people who began in moonshining 45 years ago got a Mexican connection and was flying in two tons a month," Bettis said citing other evidences that the "white whiskey business" is intertwined with the green weed. "Growing is a trend on the green weed. "Growing is a trend on the way up," he added.
Bettis believes the Mexican connection is necessary to mix the better Latin product with the poorer quality mountain-grown marijuana. Sheriff Anderson says the Wilkes County, N.C., variety is mixed with those from Columbia and Missouri to bring it up to snuff.
Sevler County, Tenn., Sheriff Carmen Townsend is still looking for the party that was cultivating and irrigating 4,000 marijuana plants near two stills smashed in May. Townsend has used mules to haul other pulled plants from the rugged slopes of the Great Smokey Mountains, where moonshining was once an art and an income supplement.
According to veteran federal agents, moonshining was dealt a near-fatal blow when sugar, a key ingredient, spiraled in cost in 1975. White lightning today retails throughout the Southeast at prices equal to bonded liquor, the agents say.
But intensive law-enforcement efforts and the increased greed of the new breed of modern moonshiners are also credited with the trade's decline.
ATF agents hold today's moonshiners in contempt for processing their product in truck radiators laden with poisonous lead salts. One veteran "revenooer" sounded almost mournful when he said, "Good ol' copper-still moonshine ain't no more."
ATF agent Hall claims that almost every sample of Virginia moonshine be submits for analysis contains lead salts allowed into the whiskey by a cruder breed of men who would traffic in marijuana. "Moonshining used to be a neighborhood thing - kind of the Snuffy Smith character stuff," said Hall. "But you run into more dangerous people today. We have to watch them more carefully when we arrest them."
Knoxville ATF agent Doug Alteizer thinks it is important to point out the cultural change that has brought moonshiners into the marijuana business. "Some of the old-timers wouldn't raise it. They think it's awful. It's against their code of ethics. It's these new people who're into marijuana," Alteizer said, noting that the rise of the "new people" coincides with the coming of legal liquor to the "dry" areas of the South.
The ATF senior agent in Georgia, Robert lane, one of the leaders of the agency's now-abandoned "Operation Dryout," which sent swarms of raiding agents through Southern moonshine country in the 1960s, says that moonshiners may make a go out of the marijuana business. "After all," he said, "they have the connections, the areas to conceal it and people to look out for them. There is an excellent possibility of them making a trend of it."
Some law-enforcement officials, disputing Carter administration claims, say they fear an increase in marijuana growing if the President is successful in decriminalizing the possession of small amounts. "If a man can have a couple of cigarettes in his shirt pocket without fear of arrest, I guaran-damn-tee you it's going to get real popular," predicted North Carolina ATF agent Westra. "It's going to get wild."