BARBOURVILLE, Ky. — Machete-wielding police officers have hacked their way through billions of dollars worth of marijuana in the country's top pot-growing states to stave off a bumper crop sprouting in the tough economy.
The amount only got bigger Thursday when helicopter spotters in Tennessee discovered a five-acre pot field near the Kentucky border and cut down more than 151,000 mature marijuana plants.
The number of plants seized has jumped this year in California, the nation's top marijuana-growing state, while seizures continue to rise in Washington after nearly doubling the previous year. Growers in a three-state region of central Appalachia also appear to have reversed a decline in pot cultivation over the last two years.
Officers in those areas, the nation's biggest hotbeds for marijuana production, have chopped down plants with a combined street value of around $12 billion in the first eight months of this year. While national numbers aren't yet available this year, officers around the country increased their haul from 7 million plants in 2007 to 8 million in 2008.
"A lot of that, we theorize, is the economy," said Ed Shemelya, head of marijuana eradication for the Office of Drug Control Policy's Appalachian High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area. "Places in east Tennessee, eastern Kentucky and West Virginia are probably feeling the recession a lot more severely than the rest of the country and have probably been in that condition a lot longer than the rest of the country."
Growers in Appalachia are often hard-luck entrepreneurs supplementing their income by growing marijuana, authorities say. Troopers thrashing through the thick mountain brush there typically find plots that could easily be tended by a single grower, while officers in the two western states have focused on larger fields run by Mexican cartels with immigrant labor.
Officers assigned to the Tennessee Governor's Task Force on Marijuana Eradication were working Thursday to destroy an expansive marijuana field near Jellico, Tenn. Authorities initially said the field might be the biggest ever found in the state, eclipsing a discovery last year of 350,000 plants in the Appalachian foothills. They later said fewer plants were found Thursday but they were more mature – some as tall as 6 feet – than the ones discovered last year.
The marijuana was being airlifted to a Tennessee state park to be burned. No one had been arrested.
The demand for domestically grown marijuana is at a record high, in part because stricter border control has made it more difficult to import pot from Mexico, said Dave Keller, deputy director of the Appalachian High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area. Keller said growers large and small across the country are trying to fill the void.
The ailing economy isn't stopping users from spending money on pot. In fact, Shemelya said the demand appears to be rising with the unemployment rate.
"I've never seen any decline in demand for marijuana in bad economic times," he said. "If anything, it's the opposite. People always seem to find money somewhere to buy drugs."
The number of plants destroyed in California has increased over the last three years, said the assistant chief of the California Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement, Kent Shaw. The total increased from 4.9 million plants in 2007 to 5.3 million in 2008. Already this year, Shaw said, California authorities have exceeded last year's total.
To the north, authorities in Washington have seen the numbers jump from 295,000 plants seized in 2007 to 580,000 in 2008. Lt. Rich Wiley, commander of the Washington State Patrol's narcotics unit, said his officers have confiscated 540,000 so far this year and he expects to meet or exceed last year's numbers.
In the heart of Appalachia, ground forces have cut more than 600,000 marijuana plants this summer in Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia, and they should end the year with a significantly higher total, Shemelya said. The plants' street value of about $2,000 each creates an often irresistible draw in communities where long-standing poverty has been fed over the years by the shuttering of factories and coal mines.
In Appalachia and the two western states, authorities said the amount of resources put into eradication efforts has been constant over the past several years.
Judge Kelsey Friend, whose jurisdiction includes some of the most isolated mountain communities in Kentucky, said he believes a huge chunk of the Appalachian marijuana is grown by people so hard-pressed that they're willing to risk freedom to improve their standard of living. The ill-gotten gains, Friend said, show up in the form of new pickup trucks, boats and even homes.
However, only an estimated 20 to 40 percent of the growers in the region manage to harvest and collect their payoff without being detected by modern day G-men assisted by spotters in helicopters.
Last month, Trooper Mac McDonald descended a mountainside near Barbourville with a load of freshly cut marijuana bundled on his shoulder, sweat dripping from his brow. McDonald and his co-workers had trudged up mountains as steep as they were remote to search dense Chinese silvergrass and expansive patches of thorny blackberry briars to find the typically small, scattered plots.
A crackdown begun six years ago had convinced many growers to give up, rather than contend with the helicopters constantly crisscrossing the region in the summer months, authorities said. But the number of growers appears to have picked up since the economy turned sour.
The amount of marijuana confiscated in Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia fell from more than 1.2 million plants in 2003 to just more than 700,000 in 2007. But in 2008, with the economy faltering, narcotics officers witnessed another marijuana boom in the mountains, and they again confiscated more than 1 million plants in the three states.
"The economy or lack of economy has always driven the marijuana trade," Shemelya said. "It still is the cash cow as far as illicit drugs. It offers the greatest return on investment."
(This version CORRECTS that there were 151,000 plants sted hundreds of thousands.)