FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Federal, state and local law enforcement agencies confiscated more than $1.5 billion worth of marijuana this year in central Appalachia, a region where widespread unemployment may be turning some people to pot farming.
Ed Shemelya, head of marijuana eradication in the Appalachian High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, released preliminary figures Tuesday showing that aerial spotters guided ground crews to more than 760,000 plants during the 2012 growing season in the mountains of Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia.
They also arrested more than 400 growers in the region.
Shemelya said nearly 430,000 of this year's marijuana plants were found in Kentucky, a substantial increase for that state over 2011. The figures showed more than 192,000 plants were confiscated in West Virginia and more than 147,000 in Tennessee.
The overall haul was down from last year, when law enforcement eradicated 1.1 million plants valued at more than $2 billion. But the total for this year is expected to rise. The final tally will be available by mid-January.
The Appalachian region, a haven for moonshiners during Prohibition, has a near-perfect climate for marijuana cultivation, plus remote forests that help growers camouflage their crops.
Marijuana can be lucrative, at least for those who don't get caught. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration estimates the street value of an average mature plant at $2,000.
Shemelya said counties where the most marijuana was eradicated tended to be the ones that are struggling economically.
"I think economic conditions in Appalachia drive the marijuana trade, and will continue to do so until such time that we start to see a recovery in Appalachia," he said.
Double-digit unemployment rates are common in coalfield counties in Kentucky. At last count, Bell, Harlan, Jackson, Knott, Leslie, Magoffin and Letcher counties had unemployment rates ranging from 13 percent to 15.5 percent.
The federal Office of Drug Control Policy concentrates resources in the Appalachian region because so much marijuana is grown there — often in small plots of fewer than 100 plants that can easily be tended by a single grower. Only California produces more of the clandestine crop than Appalachia.
"Our climate, hydrology, soil are ideal for cultivating cannabis," Shemelya said. "You can't find a better mix for cultivating cannabis anywhere in the country."