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Pot eradication efforts on track

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.  

Eradicating crops doesn't seem to affect the number of growing operations. Smith said growers typically just move to another area. That means that where officers find crops tends to vary from year to year.

"It's almost like a balloon," he said. "You squeeze in one spot, air forces in a different direction. Once you apply pressure to certain counties and start cutting it down they'll go to other areas."

More crops are typically found in Southern West Virginia than elsewhere, but the coalfields where marijuana once grew plentiful has reduced its yield as growers are turning to different drugs.

"A lot of the traditional growers are getting some age on them and are switching to pills," Smith said.

Troopers have noted an increase in illegal pill activity around the state.

The traditional growers, particularly those who have been growing for a while, take pride in what they do, he said.

They protect it from frost and work diligently to remove the male plants from the batch to keep the plants from pollinating and reducing the levels of tetrahydrocannabinol or THC, the active chemical in marijuana.

Some growers set up booby traps to keep others away from their product. Smith said growers have set steel traps to keep animals out but those traps can harm others.

He said hunters scouting in the woods have run across the marijuana fields. So have residents out walking pets.

Smith said growers often times encroach on public or private lands, even damaging property.

"Most of the outdoor marijuana is grown on other people's property," Smith said. "These are people who trespass on the lands of others and damage the property, sometimes by cutting trees down, for their garden patch."

It can lead to encounters between property owners and growers. Sometimes the encounters turn violent, he said.  

"We run into people who aren't nice," Smith said. "Some of these people are mean people who only want money.

"The problem with marijuana is the money. Violence is in the trade."

Contact writer Ashley B. Craig at ashley.craig@dailymail.com or 304-348-4850.


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