￼￼￼“Darth Raider” spent 22 years exterminating marijuana fields inside the United States. A trained Special Forces soldier, he was inserted into stateside narcotics enforcement and, as it turned out, excelled at his job. Now retired and disillusioned, he contacted High Times to tell us the story of what it was like fighting for the other side in the War on Drugs.
Journey to the Dark Side
“Darth Raider” lives in a small community of attached cooperative homes in the southeastern part of the United States,a couple of miles from the urban sprawl one usually finds near the tentacled off-ramps of America’s interstate highway system. En route to his home, you’ll find the usual landmarks: Waffle House, Chili’s, Motel 6, Walgreens, McDonald’s, and an AM/PM selling shirts inside that read “I Wish My Girlfriend Was as Dirty as My Truck.”
Recently retired, Darth spent the last 22 years as one of this region’s most successful narcotics agents, working with a task force that specialized in hunting down marijuana fields and the people who sowed them. I can’t tell you his real name or the state he lives in. I can only tell you his story—and you’d be well within your rights to question why the editor-in-chief of High Times would ever decide to do that.
Darth Raider was never a cop but rather a member of Special Forces, an Army Ranger who—in order to bypass the Posse Comitatus Act, which prohibits the American military from fighting a war against the American people—was inserted into the National Guard. That Darth was a soldier, not a Quantico grad who signed up to become a narcotics agent, caused me to wonder if it was possible for a person in my position—someone who has been fighting for marijuana nearly as long Darth fought against it—to acknowledge that there are casualties on both sides of the Drug War. I still don’t know the answer to that. But I have interviewed dozens of victims of marijuana prohibition, so it seemed reasonable to accept his invitation to find out what the war was like on the other side.
Darth showed up at my hotel at the appointed time and then drove me in his truck back to his apartment. As he escorted me into the dining room, he apologized for the mess—despite the fact that the place was immaculate. When I told him as much, he led me over to a small bookshelf that held his medals and awards and pointed to the thin layer of dust. Then he encouraged me to browse. There was a Bronze Star (awarded for acts of heroism or meritorious service in the combat zone), numerous citations and a flak helmet decorated with stickers—a Grateful Dead dancing bear and a pot leaf with a red line through it that read “Governor’s Task Force—Marijuana Eradication Program.”
I picked up a laminated plaque with a red ribbon down the left side; it was inscribed with the words “Drug Enforcement Administration, United States Department of Justice, Presents This Certificate of Appreciation to [Darth Raider] for Outstanding Contributions in the Field of Drug Law Enforcement.”
“They gave me that after I found over one million plants in a single year,” he told me.
As with most men, Darth Raider takes pride in those things he is able to do well—his Special Forces training, his sniper-level marksmanship, and his unequalled ability to spot marijuana from the pilot’s seat of a Hughes 500 helicopter. His misgivings began when he looked back at how these talents were applied in the course of 22 years of military service, and the physical and mental price that he continues to pay for it.
“I’m curious,” I said. “Obviously, we come from different sides of the ideological spectrum when it comes to the War on Drugs. Why did you call High Times?”
“ ’Cause I wanna share my story,” he replied. “I believe the government has done me wrong. They retired me early because of my injuries; they basically bottled me up like a piece of trash and tossed me aside. I was chosen by the government to fight that war—and even though I was very good at it, I never did like it.”
“We’ve always heard that the Feds were some of our most loyal subscribers.”
“Yeah, we had a subscription to High Times, and we all had to read it,” Darth said. “We had a stack of them in the latrine. So when we’re doing a number two, that was our readin’ material, ’cause we always tried to be one step ahead of the growers.”
The Raider family’s military history reaches all the way back to the Civil War; Darth’s ancestors fought for both the Union and the Confederacy. On top of his refrigerator is a framed photo of his father, who fought with the First Infantry Division—the fabled Big Red One. A handsome man, Darth’s dad is shown laying on a beach in Italy after the Korean War, drinking a beer, looking at the camera, his hair the closest thing to a greasy Elvis pompadour that a soldier would have been allowed to have in the 1950s. What’s striking is the confidence in his face, as if he was looking back at America and saying, “Don’t worry about all them commies and their atom bombs—I got you covered.”
“Your family fought in the Civil War,” I noted. “Do you find it ironic that, 150 years later, you also fought a war on American soil?”
“That’s a tough question,” Darth countered, “and I don’t know how to answer it, Chris. It’s … I kind of just … I fell into it. I volunteered seven times to go to Desert Storm. I wanted to go out—and this is gonna sound bad, but I’ll be honest with you—I wanted to go out and be a killer. I wanted to have a gun and fight. I wanted to be what every little kid wants to be: I wanted to be an Airborne Ranger—I wanted to be jumping out of airplanes in foreign countries. And I ended up in the Drug War. It was just not what I expected.”
He led me over to several boxes of pictures and encouraged me to dig. They were in no particular order. Most were of marijuana fields photographed from the door of a helicopter. Some were of hauls his unit had made—huge piles of uprooted cannabis plants, lying on the ground or heaped in the back of a pickup truck. Despite Darth’s insistence that he didn’t much care for what he was doing, there were several shots of him posing next to the confiscated plants and grinning. Mixed among these were personal shots of him done up like Braveheart for Halloween or wearing his dress uniform to a Broncos game—that was the day he met his hero, Peyton Manning, who Darth swears is seven feet tall, not the 6-foot-5 that everyone else says. There were Christmas scenes, ex-girlfriends, a shot of Darth with a mullet and a Metallica shirt in high school. There were also several pictures of him and his unit from their training days.
He picked one out and said, “This makes me want to cry.” The photo was of a half-dozen young recruits, posing with the M-16s they were ordered to keep by their side at all times. They were smiling, hamming it up. One by one, Darth pointed at the men and described how they died: “He had a heart attack … he committed suicide … he was killed in Afghanistan …. ”
There was another picture of Darth as a young soldier holding a rabbit. He explained to me that, as part of their Special Forces training, each member of his team was given an animal that they had to care for. Darth was given a rabbit. He had to name it, cuddle with it, sleep with it, and then—after a couple weeks of getting to feel some sort of kinship with it—he had to swing it from its hind legs, bash its brains out on a rock, skin it, cook it and eat it.
The photo was housed in a plastic envelope with eight gold letters embossed on the front: “MEMORIES.”
“I wish I could erase a whole lot of stuff from my memory,” Darth said. “But I can’t.”
Darth doesn’t like to be interviewed. We spent a few days together, going out to eat, driving around listening to Five-Finger Death Punch, drinking at the local Hooters. He was happy to discuss his life as a narc, or shoot the breeze about football, guns, aircraft, off-roading, hot-rodding or women, but anytime I turned on my digital voice recorder, he grew uncomfortable. He was aware of the power that a taped confession can have over a person. One night, while were hanging out at his dining-room table, I asked if he was ever sent abroad as part of his service, and he requested that I turn the recorder off.
He explained that he had taken an oath to become an Army Ranger, so there were certain things he could not divulge. On a few occasions, he told me, he was ordered to the base in the middle of the night, loaded with the rest of his unit into a Lockheed C-130 Hercules and administered a sedative that put him to sleep. Arriving in South America, he was then given an amphetamine to bring him to.
“If we asked where we were, we were told to stand down,” he said. “Which is a fancy way of saying, ‘Shut up.’”
One time (he thinks it was Peru), he was sent to train soldiers in narcotics interdiction, and another time (he’s pretty sure it was Colombia), his unit was used as “force enhancement” to take down a drug lord at his mansion. For that mission, his unit painted their faces white, with black teardrops on their cheeks. The goal was maximum intimidation. The drug lord gave up without a struggle; then Darth and his men were loaded onto the plane, given another sedative and flown back to America.
I turned the recorder back on.
“You told me that you had a gift for spotting marijuana. What do you mean by that?”
“It just jumps out at me. I can be half-asleep in the aircraft and it’s like Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer pops up.”
“How did you come to it?”
“I started off as a mechanic in 1990. I had to do maintenance on a helicopter, so the pilot picked me up and said, ‘Why don’t you just fly with me today?’—and I found dope all day long.”
“What is it that you looked for?”
“The texture. The color really isn’t … I’ve seen plants that look blue, I’ve seen ’em yellow, and so I always went for the texture of the leaves.”
“What’s the best hiding spot you ever saw?”
“The end of a runway at an airport—because when an aircraft is taking off, they’re not lookin’ down, they’re lookin’ at other aircraft and they’re focusin’ on the ascent and, um … so the best place to grow dope is around a small airport at the end of the runways. You can’t see it.”
“You’ve told me that you didn’t like being part of the Drug War, you didn’t respect it, but what do you think now? And I’m not talking about when you busted a cartel garden or were fighting against organized crime—you also busted a lot of gardens that were just regular people growing marijuana …. ”
“Yes … yes, I did,” Darth said.
“Um … that’s an honest question. I think it’s a waste of taxpayers’ money, it’s a waste of jet fuel—and about the last five years of my career, I did it because it was my job. And you can definitely publish this: I got to a point, I flew in the left seat of a 58-cal. Ranger OH-58 Kiowa Warrior helicopter, and if I saw a patch of dope, I would just ignore it. Like I said, the last five years I was done with the competition thing. I was going through a divorce, and I was just absolutely lookin’ at the calendar, counting my days.”
“What’s the bust that you’re most proud of ?”
“The most proud bust? We found, oh, like 40 plants behind a house and called it in. The DA, the DEA—and all them were knuckleheads, of course—but they rolled in and searched the basement, and it was a dub station for child porn. This was before DVDs—they had machines making VCR tapes of all kinds of child porn, plus they had methamphetamine, heroin … you name it, it was there. We slapped a couple beer glasses together that night. We did good, because the gentleman that lived there needed to go to jail.”
These days, Darth Raider is not a healthy man. He has collapsed arches in both feet, a torn meniscus in his right knee, six titanium screws in his right shoulder and three more in his left. One afternoon, he started showing me his scars, rolling up his sleeve to point out the gunshot wound that he received during a crack-house raid, and then turning around so I could see the scar from the bullet that nicked his spine in another drug-house raid six years later. Darth returned fire in the first incident and hit his target between the eyes. He can’t remember anything about the second shooting except for waking up in Walter Reed Hospital two weeks later and being told that he would probably never walk again. Unbeknownst to him at the time, his wife was already in possession of this information and, while he was still in a coma, drained their bank account and filed for divorce.
Darth was given a bronze star for the man he killed in the crackhouse raid, and the guys in his unit pressured him to get a “death” tattoo, a heart with devil horns permanently inked into his ankle. I’ve heard him say more than once that he was forced to kill that man, and there seems to be a disconnect between his soldier’s brain and his human one when it comes to that event. As a sniper, he was trained to respond without hesitation. He knew that the logic of his decision was irreproachable, but a man is composed of more than just logic.
The one memory that plagues him the most concerns the death of his friend and dope-hunting partner. As previously mentioned, the competition to uncover marijuana gardens was fierce among the different units and agencies involved, so sometimes, on Sundays, Darth and his friend would take their helicopter and go “pre-spotting.” They would whirl around looking for gardens so that, come Monday morning, they could fly straight to that spot and make a bust while the rest of the boys were still drinking their coffee. One Sunday, Darth’s friend flew out without him and ran into some heavy weather that brought the helicopter down. Darth was part of the search party that found the crash site a few days later. I will not tell you the details of how he found his friend’s body, only that he choked back tears as he described them to me.
“It just ate at me and ate at me and ate at me,” Darth said, “and it just got bigger and bigger and bigger.”
After diagnosing him with post-traumatic stress disorder, the Veterans Administration prescribed Darth Percocet, Ambien, Lunestra, chlordiazepoxide and various blood pressure medicines. He quit going to counseling, because being around other vets with the same problems somehow made it worse. Darth’s a drinker, and in tandem with the pain and allergy medications he takes, it sometimes gets the best of him. One morning, we met for breakfast at Waffle House. Darth knelt to pray before sitting, which he always does before a meal, and then ordered the chili. And I’m not sure if he’d been nervous about the prospect of being interviewed or maybe just had a bad night, but his head hung heavy over his breakfast like someone had replaced his brain with tombstone marble. I suggested he go take a nap; the interview could wait.
Darth told me he’d been sleepwalking lately—but more than just walking, he’d been doing military exercises in a somnambulant state, securing the perimeter of his house, pistol in hand. One recent night, when a friend was sleeping over, Darth woke up to find himself standing over his buddy, pointing a gun at his face. His friend was a vet too and managed to talk him down; he knew the score. Darth has since been storing his firearms at his father’s house.
The shining light of Darth Raider’s life these days is his daughter, whom he takes to school and to soccer practice regularly. Every Sunday, Darth goes to church. He also takes care of his father, who has cancer. Darth is happiest when he’s out enjoying nature, either with friends or alone. He bought a piece of property recently, which he hopes to build on. Although he grew to hate his job toward the end, I believe that retirement disagrees with him even more.
One night before I arrived, Darth had gone to a fraternity party in the woods and started drinking Jägermeister. Too drunk to drive home, he crashed out in his car on a dirt road. Two cops roused him around sunrise and took him in on a DUI, despite the fact that his keys weren’t even in the ignition.
In the drunk tank, one of the deputies assigned to guard his cell—a woman—had a surprise for his cellmates. “Do you know who you’re locked up with?” she asked as she held open Darth’s wallet, displaying the badge he carries signifying that he’s a retired narcotics officer. Three men approached him with ill intent, and Darth pleaded with the deputies to be placed in a different cell. Instead, they took their phones out and started taking pictures of the unfolding drama.
As Darth tells it—and I believe him— his tormentors had no idea what kind of trouble they were inviting. Three guys in a drunk tank were no match for a pissed- off and hung-over soldier trained in the combat arts by the most elite program the US military has to offer.
Pissed off that they had to break up a fight that they instigated themselves, the deputies placed Darth in solitary confinement for the next 12 hours.
“It was a tiny concrete room with a stainless steel toilet, and there was urine all over the floor. If I wanted toilet paper, I had to ask for it. I had to sleep on concrete with no blanket, no pillow, nothing. I had to just sleep on concrete that had urine on it, and the next day they opened up a little slot and were talkin’ to me like a dog, and I think it was out of pure jealousy because they were wannabe cops and I worked with the highest level—DEA, FBI. They stuck the tray of breakfast in and dropped it—didn’t give me a chance to grab it. It bounces in a puddle of urine.”
“What did it feel like, being on the other side of the law?” I asked.
“You know, you have to give me a minute to think,” Darth replied. Then he paused. “I’ve ruined a lot of people’s lives doing my job,” he said. “I’ve had their farms confiscated, all their vehicles confiscated, and I feel a little, little bit sorry … but I was doing my job.”
Many soldiers spend their post-combat lives looking for closure. Stories abound about Vietnam vets who went back to that country in search of something that those of us who didn’t fight there can’t really understand. The moral grey zone that a soldier faces when he enters a battlefield is likewise difficult for us civilians to comprehend. He’s been given a mission by his commanding officer and, to a certain extent, the right to violate the laws of God and man, nature and reason, to perform it. Search and destroy.
At present, marijuana users are on the cusp of prevailing in the long war that’s been waged against them—but if there’s ever to be a lasting peace, both the victors and the vanquished must learn to co-exist. I have no right to be the arbitrator of any treaty, nor do I pretend to speak on behalf of my side in this conflict. I’m just saying that eventually, veterans of both sides are going to find themselves on line together at the supermarket.
Despite our differences, Darth Raider and I have become friends; I can’t spend a week with a guy—eating, drinking and talking about family—without developing some kind of kinship. He called me recently and said he dumped all his pharmaceuticals and has lightened up on the drinking. Ironically, I believe the one thing that can help Darth with his PTSD is the plant he hunted most of his adult life. I even put him in touch with other vets I know who treat their PTSD with marijuana, though until his DUI is behind him, Darth is subject to random urine tests. But people can change, and I hope Darth pulls through. War is hell, no matter which side you fight for.
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