$2 billion in marijuana plants found in Appalachia this year

FRANKFORT — 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.

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.

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.

Authorities say stricter border controls 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.