The People’s Plant, Part 3: Kurth Your Enthusiasm
President Richard Nixion on June 17th, 1971 addressed the nation during a press conference. This address would forever go down in history as the date the “War on Drugs,” as it would forever after be coined, would start. Nixon went on to state that drug abuse was “Public Enemy Number One” in the US and it was necessary “to wage a new all out offensive”. This new “war” gave law enforcement, including in some cases the national guard, the ability to perform no-knock warrants, warrantless wiretapping, and they increased mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses. The Nixon administration also made cannabis a “Schedule 1” drug, the most restrictive and controlled scheduling a substance could have. At this time, the stance that the Nixon administration took on drugs was reportedly due to the higher crime rates in the country from years past and the drug addiction many soldiers were suffering from after their return from Vietnam. In actuality, the Nixon administration had taken this stance for mainly two reasons, to quell dissent from two of Nixon’s largest centers of opposition, the Anti-War activists and the Blacks.
Police arresting individuals shortly after the “War on Drugs” was announced in 1971
A top Nixon aide, John Ehrlichman, later admitted: “You want to know what this was really all about. The Nixon campaign in 1968 and the Nixon White House after that had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying. We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.” Harper’s Magazine, April 2016
Yet between 1973 and 1977, eleven different states decriminalized marijuana possession. When Jimmy Carter was elected president in 1977, one of his chief campaign platforms was the decriminalization of cannabis and in October of that same year, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to decriminalize possession of up to an ounce of marijuana for personal use.
The 1980s would see popular opinion shift from a more accepting culture of the 70s to a much more authoritarian approach. On September 14th, 1986, First Lady Nancy Reagan joined her husband in a television broadcast that addressed the nation asking them to “Just Say No” to drugs. This was the start of her campaign to help eradicate the blight that was drug addiction in this nation and it set a ball in motion that destroyed any chance for real and lasting change to occur in this country, regarding drug addiction. The new offensive by the Reagans was intended to be a reboot of the earlier Nixon War on Drugs offensive. Her stance, and by proxy, the government’s stance, towards drug addiction was that all a person needed to do was just say no. If they were offered drugs, just say no, which not only oversimplified an increasingly complex issue but also allowed the perpetuation of the myth that drug addiction is a choice. It created a national dialogue where there were people who made good choices, by saying no to drugs and people who made bad choices, by saying yes to drugs. It didn’t allow for any shade of gray or even the remote possibility that drug addiction was a compulsive act beyond the control of the person afflicted, and in doing so, it created an “other” out of the drug addict, which caused the criminalization of their disease.
First Lady Nancy Reagan speaking at a “Just Say No” rally in Los Angeles, 1987.
Drug Abuse Resistance Education, or D.A.R.E., was founded in 1983 when the war on drugs was in full swing. After the rampant use of hallucinogens and smoking pot in the 70s, the public perception of illegal drugs began to change. Crack use was on the rise by the mid-’80s. 5.8 million people in the U.S. admitted to using it regularly, and gang activity was running rampant, contributing to the 1,011 murders in Los Angeles in 1980 (a 209 percent increase since 1970). In the wake of the “Just Say No” campaign, police officers and teachers in L.A. founded D.A.R.E., spearheaded by L.A. Police Chief Daryl Gates. The new program was a way for the community to better relate to police and to decrease alcohol, tobacco, and drug use among kids and teens. At the time, the curriculum comprised largely of what you probably remember from your own D.A.R.E. years: police officers lecturing students on how to resist peer pressure through facts about gateway drugs and techniques to turn down dangerous offers. Parents, officers, and teachers widely applauded the program, and by the late 1990s, D.A.R.E. appeared in 75 percent of school districts across America. While the first reports on the D.A.R.E program found it inspired a decrease in kids’ tobacco use, as researchers began to take a closer look at the numbers, it became apparent that D.A.R.E. wasn’t working. Multiple studies were conducted in the ’90s, funded by big names like the Justice Department and the National Institute of Health. Majority of them found virtually no change in drug, alcohol, and tobacco use between kids who had been through the program and those who hadn’t.
In 1985 a family of beef ranchers named the Kurth family in Fort Benton, Montana made a desperate decision. Due to massive drought and an already lean beef market, the Kurth family found themselves 1.2 million dollars in debt to Northwest Bank. After the bank froze their credit, the family met with a loan officer at the bank. The desperate family asked the loan officer, Floyd DeRusha, if there was anything they could do to recoup the losses. DeRusha reportedly said jokingly “other than growing marijuana, I don’t know what you can do. Why don’t you try that?”. The irony of the loan officer’s statement became self-evident only months later when Richard Kurth, the father of the family, picked up a magazine and happened on an article titled “Marijuana Savior of the Family Farm.” After reading the article in which it touted cannabis as a new cash crop, Richard made a conclusion:
“I came up with the rationalization that people who own distilleries, whose product leads to drunk-driving deaths, sleep at night. So do the people who sell cigarettes, which kill thousands of people from lung cancer. We had to believe that what we were going to do wasn’t any worse than what they did.”
In the following weeks after discussing with his family, Richard and the rest of the Kurths made the momentous decision to grow. The Kurths had been farmers and ranchers for generations, and apparently, after ordering a few books on cultivation and reading through articles found in the local library on many different cultivation techniques, Richerd felt ready to grow cannabis. “We decided that if we were going to grow it, we would grow the very best we could.” Kurth began scouting bars in and around Great Falls, MT, in the Fall of 1985, and after befriending a few younger patrons, Dick was put in touch with the right people. Dick received a phone call ten days later from a man that could give him the seeds to start his grow and arranged to meet him in a Great Falls parking lot. On the understanding that Kurth would sell him the product, the stranger gave the rancher a handful of seeds and some books on marijuana cultivation. By the spring of 1986, the Kurths were growing enough marijuana to begin selling small amounts. The work became more and more demanding and Kurth decided that the only way to continue was to enlist the help of his children. “It was either do it or say goodbye to everything.” The Kurths rapidly began to expand and after completing a3,600 ft2grow room equipped with the latest in rotating halide and sodium lamps, plus irrigation and ventilation systems designed to maintain ideal growing conditions for up to 2,500 plants, the Kurths had one of the largest grows in Montana. Dick would reportedly drive once a week to a mile marker on Highway 15, between Helena and Great Falls, and leave a 5-7 pound box of marijuana. For this amount of cannabis, Dick would get around $1,800. “The ranch never did better,” Kurth has said, but this would come at a cost. “We had two different personalities,” says Judith. “One for growing and the other for the community. It put a lot of pressure on us. I started getting sick headaches for the first time in my life.” Added Dick: “On the days I would deliver the stuff, I was absolutely worn out, exhausted from looking over my shoulder. No, we didn’t like it.” Kurth boldly told Northwest Bank officials where he was getting the money to pay off his debts and said they even helped him deposit his hefty profits without alerting the bank’s detection system. Northwest President Frank Shaw denied both accusations.
Interstate 15 between Helena and Great Falls
A few months later, with the Kurth family debts reducing due to all their hard work, Richard decided to tell his dealers they would be winding down their production. The dealers were outraged by the request. Dick recalls, “They said, ‘We’re gonna tell you when to quit, and if you don’t like it, well, you’ve sure got a nice family and nice grandkids, and we’d hate to see anything happen to them.” The original dealer, learning of the widespread success of the Kurth Family, demanded to be compensated for his help in getting the grow started. Refusing his request, the Kurths said the dealer vowed, “he would get back at us for cutting him out.”
In 1987, the Anti-Dangerous Drug act was enacted and increased the mandatory minimum penalties to drug trafficking. The Act amended 21 U.S.C. 844 to make crack cocaine the only drug with a mandatory minimum penalty for a first offense of simple possession. The law increased federal penalties for the sale and possession of an array of drugs, including marijuana, with the penalties based on the amount of the drug involved. Under the law, possession of 100 marijuana plants received the same penalty as possession of 100 grams of heroin. A later amendment established a “three strikes and you’re out” policy, requiring life sentences for repeat drug offenders.
In October of 1987, while Dick and Judith were away on a business trip to Spokane, Washington, five men claiming to be from the Drug Enforcement Administration showed up at the Kurth’s ranch, beat up Doug, Rhonda and Bill, the Kurths’ children, and tied them to chairs. They then proceeded to take 400 marijuana plants. The next day, after Dick and Judith’s return, a man who said he had been at the ranch the night before called and demanded $25,000 by that afternoon “or else he’d call the real DEA and have us busted.” Panicked, the Kurth Family immediately decided to destroy the rest of their crop rather than risk the chance of arrest and prosecution at the hands of the authorities. The family was still destroying the marijuana when a cloud of dust appeared over the dirt road leading up to the ranch, heralding the arrival of legitimate lawmen, a posse from the DEA and the local sheriff’s office. Dismayed, the family realized the would-be extortionist had made good on his promise, and the law was at their doorstep. “I think everyone was crying just because it was finally over and we were so relieved,” Dick said.
A New York Times article dated Wednesday, September 7th, 1988 covered the Kurth story
The Kurth family was arrested, and the surrounding community of Fort Benton was stunned. Richard Kurth had been chosen for Rancher of the Year in 1972 and, for many of his community members, it was hard to believe that Dick was, at the time, one of the largest marijuana growers in the state. “Most farmers around here are having hard times,” said a member of the community, “but you don’t see us growing pot.”. In the ensuing months, the Kurth Family was indicted on conspiracy to possess drugs with the intent to sell, and all 6 members of the family were charged. After Dick and Judith pled guilty to criminal possession and intent to sell a controlled substance, they were given reduced sentences. On July 18, 1988, the court sentenced Richard Kurth and Judith Kurth to prison and imposed suspended or deferred sentences on the other four family members. The sentencing Judge Ettien compared the Kurths to Depression-era farmers who made moonshine to save their family homesteads, angering the community of the Kurth family supporters who were justifying the family’s actions saying marijuana is far from the hard drugs like cocaine and heroin.
The family was informed by the Montana Department of Revenue that they owed the state of Montana $900,000 in taxes on marijuana plants, harvested marijuana, hash tar and hash oil, interest, and penalties. Altogether, the family was 2.6 million dollars in debt to the federal and state governments. This was a momentous case, partly just due to the fact this was the first time a state had tried and succeeded in taxing an individual on an illegal substance. Although all if the family members have been long since released from prison, this marked the first major drug bust of a grower in the state of Montana and the court case of The Department of Revenue of the State of Montana vs. The Kurth Ranch made legal precedent on the taxation of illegal goods sold in the US. In the later years since the Kurths, the Montana legislation made headway in legalizing the medical use of cannabis in Montana, and in 2004, it was made medically legal for the first time in the state since 1927.
The story continues of Montana’s rocky road through legalization after the millennia but this is a story for another day. And that day is tomorrow. The fourth and final part of the People’s Plant series is out tomorrow!
Wise, Abigail. “The Rise, Fall, & Rebirth Of D.A.R.E. In Schools Across The Country.” Romper, Romper, 17 Dec. 2018, www.romper.com/p/the-rise-fall-rebirth-of-dare-in-schools-across-the-country-19314.
Boeri, Miriam. “Reefer Madness! The Twisted History of America’s Marijuana Laws.” KQED, 9 Jan. 2018, www.kqed.org/lowdown/24153/reefer-madness-the-twisted-history-of-americas-weed-laws.
Jenison, David. “Richard Nixon’s Drug War.” PRØHBTD, PRØHBTD, prohbtd.com/richard-nixons-drug-war.
“Rancher Dick Kurth’s World Went Up in Smoke After He Bet His Family’s Future on Dope.” PEOPLE.com, People, 24 Oct. 1988, people.com/archive/rancher-dick-kurths-world-went-up-in-smoke-after-he-bet-his-familys-future-on-dope-vol-30-no-17/.