Source: Charleston Gazette Summer flooding, FAA rules ground State Police efforts to spot pot from air Despite being kept from the air by natural disasters and terrorists, State Police have worked hard to keep West Virginia from growing a bumper crop of marijuana. Troopers, National Guardsmen and those who spot the pot in the valleys and mountains of the state have been grounded for a big part of the growing season and now into harvest time. With slightly more than a month of marijuana eradication time left, State Police have confiscated about 6,000 fewer plants than last year. Though there's still time to find more, Federal Aviation Administration rules enacted after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington are keeping helicopters grounded. "We are only flying for incidents that are law enforcement-related," said Trooper Jay Powers, a State Police spokesman. The FAA flight rules require the choppers - both State Police and National Guard - to stay in constant contact with air traffic controllers, Powers said. That limits work on marijuana eradication projects because the low-altitude flying needed to spot the pot prohibits pilots from keeping contact with control towers. But that's only the current problem. When floods ravaged southern West Virginia in July, emphasis on finding pot patches declined while troopers and Guardsmen helped flood victims. "We really aren't exactly where we should be," conceded Sgt. Steve Jones, head of the State Police marijuana eradication effort. Last year, State Police confiscated 39,286 marijuana plants growing in fields and mountainsides throughout the state. So far this year, troopers have pulled about 33,544 marijuana plants from the ground. "Obviously, the assistance given by the flood detail and the lack of air support has been a problem," Jones said. Like a number of other Appalachian states, West Virginia's most valued cash crop became marijuana about 20 years ago. In 1997, the latest figures available, the illegal harvest was estimated at 86,246 pounds. That ranked the state, which was 35th in population, as the 16th highest in marijuana production in the nation, according to High Times magazine. "Marijuana has become a substantial part of the local economy in the Appalachia region - it is the No. 1 cash crop here," the federal Office of National Drug Control Policy wrote in its 2000 report. "An ideal climate for marijuana cultivation, poverty and a rural geography facilitates marijuana production and transportation across county and state lines. There are also 75 public and private airports in the Appalachian High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area." The Appalachian HIDTA was created by the federal government in 1998 to combat pot growing in 11 southern counties of West Virginia, along with Kentucky and Tennessee, all considered the heart of East Coast marijuana growing. Typically each summer, troopers work with State Police and National Guard helicopters, whose crews spot marijuana in remote hills and hollows, then direct troopers to it. The activity takes place from June through October, though late September begins the harvesting season. High Times said West Virginia's 1997 pot crop was the 14th most valuable in the nation, estimated to be worth somewhere between $448 million and $718 million if sold on the street. That was based on the magazine's 1997 estimate of a price per ounce. West Virginians apparently were paying the highest average price in the country at $325. That study estimated the state eradicated 25 percent of the crop that year, 12th highest in the nation. With only 0.69 percent of the nation's population, the magazine estimated West Virginia captured 1.78 percent of the national illegal marijuana market. The outdoor crop has diminished almost every year, Jones said. "A few years ago, our biggest job was eradicating marijuana. Now our problem is finding it." Past efforts have caused growers to move away from large fields and instead plant in smaller plots, Jones said. "I'd like to think it's the result of [State Police] having success," he said. "They're a little bit smarter about [hiding plants] now," said 1st Sgt. Joe Parsons, a veteran of eradicating marijuana in southern West Virginia. This year, troopers in the field have had to find a large amount of the crop by using foot power and informants. That happened earlier this week when Lincoln County troopers found 294 plants in a remote area near Big Ugly. Parsons said two men digging ginseng found the plants off a small trail that came off a gas line road on the backside of a state park. Like most other efforts, last week's Lincoln County bust resulted in no arrests. Most growers don't plant the substance on their own land, Parsons said. And unlike other parts of the nation, Appalachian pot distributors and growers tend to be "kin-based and family-oriented," the Office of National Drug Control Policy report says. They also have been known to be protective. "An increase in competition in marijuana distribution has resulted in an increase in drug-related violence," the report said. "Growers have begun using firearms, explosives and booby traps, which has resulted in an increased threat to law enforcement." Parsons has no doubt there is less marijuana being grown in the area where he works. "I think it's indicative that a lot of people are going to indoor growing," he said. Could be, Jones said. "Last year we had a significant increase in indoor growing," he noted.