CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Despite this summer's dry, scorching weather, State Police are on track to seize and destroy as many or more marijuana crops than in years past.
West Virginia ranked fifth among states nationwide for the number of pot crops authorities destroyed in 2011, according to the federal Drug Enforcement Administration. California was in first place with 3,987,538 plants seized or destroyed.
West Virginia eliminated 185,510 plants last year, according to the DEA. Authorities believe that number could be surpassed by year's end.
Sgt. Mike Smith, head of the State Police marijuana eradication program, said three of the top five marijuana-producing states are in Appalachia. Tennessee and Kentucky also placed in the DEA's top five for 2011.
West Virginia's climate and terrain make it an ideal location for growing pot, he said.
So far this year, troopers have destroyed about 150,000 marijuana plants statewide. Smith expects to end the year with 180,000 to 200,000.
"It's been an ideal season for growing," Smith said. "We had a dry spell from May to July and we expect some of the plants were lost through scorching. The plants really struggled through the dry weather.
"But overall we're about where we were last year."
Next year could be a different story. Smith said budget cuts could limit how often troopers will search for crops in 2013.
"We've done a really good job on outdoor eradication but depending on how the budget runs we might not even be doing outdoor eradication as much next year," Smith said. "If it comes down to it, we'll adapt."
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin has asked most state agencies to begin trimming 7.5 percent from their budgets next year. While the State Police trooper retirement fund and other retirement-related liabilities are exempt from the governor's request, there is no general provision exempting law enforcement activity.
It isn't yet clear how any budget cuts to law enforcement would affect Smith's program specifically. For now at least, troopers still plan to search for and destroy crops next year, he said.
Troopers use helicopters to spot pot from the air and all-terrain vehicles to track it on the ground. Sometimes they are able to find crops by themselves, but more often they get tips from the public.
They work with DEA agents and officers from local agencies, Smith said.
Troopers continue their search for outdoor grows until the first frost. Even after colder weather sets in, they remain on the lookout for indoor growing facilities, which Smith said are becoming more popular.