FRANKFORT, Ky. - Appalachian states have seen an increase in marijuana production, and a federal drug official said Thursday that a sour economy may have turned some people in need of cash to the clandestine crop.
Ed Shemelya, head of marijuana eradication for the Office of National Drug Control Policy's efforts in Appalachia, said helicopter spotters and ground crews found and cut more than 1.1 million plants worth some $2 billion in Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia during the 2011 growing season.
That was an increase of more than 100,000 plants over 2010.
Shemelya estimated that local, state and federal authorities rooted out roughly half of the marijuana being grown in the impoverished central Appalachian region where, he said, economic woes are fueling cultivation.
"It is no secret that all three states have been adversely impacted by economic problems," he said. "The only thing that really separates them is the state line. There's not a lot of opportunity, and when things get really, really tough, people gravitate toward marijuana cultivation."
Shemelya said authorities confiscated 550,000 plants in Tennessee, 385,000 in Kentucky and 185,000 in West Virginia. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration estimates the street value of an average mature plant at $2,000.
"It's hugely profitable, and that's why we continue to deal with it year after year," Shemelya said.
Marijuana growers in Appalachia, Shemelya said, can be hard-core criminals or hard-luck entrepreneurs supplementing their income. Most of the crops that authorities find in the region are less than 100 plants, which can easily be tended by a single grower.
The region, a haven for moonshiners during Prohibition, has a near-perfect climate for marijuana cultivation, plus remote forests that help growers to camouflage their crops.
Sociologist Roy Silver, a New York City native who has spent 30 years in central Appalachia, said several factors are at play, including the economy of a region that he said was suffering long before the national recession.
"Generally speaking, if people go to an alternative means of sustaining their family, if there's not employment opportunities, it's more likely that they turn to the illegal underground economy," Silver said.
Authorities point to stricter border controls that have made it more difficult to import pot from Mexico. They say that has pushed up demand for domestically grown marijuana at a time when law enforcement authorities are being pinched by budget cuts.
Shemelya said investigators were being told early in the year that growers believed those budget cuts would mean fewer spotters in the air over Appalachia and fewer cutters on the mountainsides, making this an opportune time for growers to plant.
"All the law enforcement agencies of the three states are feeling the fiscal impacts of our economy," he said. "And I am amazed by the quality of work that's being done. We do our very best to get everything, and work diligently to find it, identify who is cultivating it, and arrest those we can."