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Efforts destroy thousands of the state’s largest cash crop

Posted on December 5, 2000

Despite the annual war on drugs, marijuana remains West Virginia’s largest cash crop.

If the 38,000 plants confiscated statewide so far this year had been allowed to grow to maturity, each might have had a street value of about $2,000 — or in excess of $76 million.

By comparison, the total value of legal cash crops monitored by the state Department of Agriculture is about $53 million. The state’s largest legal crop is apples, generating $11.8 million in annual sales.

West Virginia and marijuana have been synonymous for decades. In the early 1900s, the Navy encouraged the cultivation of hemp on several hundred acres in the South Branch of the Potomac River Valley. The fiber strands were used to manufacture rope.

Although the plant’s THC content — the narcotic ingredient found in marijuana — was low, wild strands were harvested and sold outside the state.

“It was sold in the Washington, D.C., Philadelphia areas and marketed as Romney Red,” said state agriculture Commissioner Gus Douglass.

Romney Red is gone, a victim of Department of Agriculture eradication efforts of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

More potent plants have taken its place and Douglass’ agency is no longer in the eradication business.

Today, West Virginia is one of five states that account for nearly 77 percent of the nation’s marijuana supply, according to a report by the West Virginia National Guard’s counterdrug program. The other states are California, Kentucky, Hawaii and Tennessee.

Since 1998, 11 West Virginia counties have been a part of the Appalachian HIDTA — High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area. The $6 million-a-year state and federal effort focuses on 65 counties in West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee. There are 25 other HIDTA’s across the nation.

West Virginia’s HIDTA counties are: Boone, Braxton, Cabell, Gilmer, Lewis, Lincoln, Logan, Mason, McDowell, Mingo and Wayne. Two counties not in the HIDTA, Kanawha and Ritchie, yielded the highest number of plants during sweeps. More than 5,000 plants were confiscated in each county.

The state’s annual output, however, is “nowhere near what these other states report,” said State Police Sgt. Steve Jones, the agency’s marijuana eradication coordinator.

So far this year, Kentucky has confiscated 463,673 plants in its 120 counties. Figures for Tennessee were not available.

The outdoor marijuana-growing season starts in early spring and ends with the first killing frost. Because profit margins are high, growers have established elaborate indoor systems, with grow lights and automated watering and fertilizing systems, so they can keep production up all year, said Kentucky State Police Lt. Don Gill.

During the indoor season, some growers clone plants to produce higher THC content. With limited space, fewer plants are grown. So far this year, 1,420 plants have been confiscated from 38 indoor plots in West Virginia.

It’s the outdoor season where plots with hundreds of plants are located and destroyed.

Aircraft have become the surveillance vehicle of choice, as outdoor plots are traditionally located in remote, rugged areas where it’s easier to travel by foot than with four-wheel-drive vehicles.

“On a good day, we have as many as six aircraft in the air” looking for plants that can grow in excess of 19 feet tall, Jones said.

The terrain also seems to favor the plant.

“It’s not a difficult crop to grow,” Douglass said. “Turn it loose and get out of its way.” Wild strands, known as ditchweed, still exist.

Jones and others say the annual seek-and-destroy missions make a difference. This year, 180 people were arrested in West Virginia on marijuana cultivation and related charges. In Kentucky, the number is 274.

“When we started this in about 1983, the plots were huge,” Jones said. “It was not unusual to find a plot with 8,000 to 10,000 plants. We put the pressure on and we find less marijuana than we initially did.”

Yet, for every plant confiscated, an undetermined number grow to maturity. If conditions are right, a fully mature plant can produce between 1 and 2 pounds of processed marijuana.

Gill thinks arrested growers are being truthful when they talk about the plants that get away.

“What the growers tell us is they raise three plants: one for them, one for the police and one for the person who comes in and steals off them.”

Copyright © 2000, The Associated Press. All rights reserved.