Law enforcement officers harvested a dubious record last year, enough marijuana plants to rank the illegal weed as Washington state's No. 8 agricultural commodity, edging out sweet cherries in value.
The 135,323 marijuana plants seized in 2005 were estimated to be worth $270 million, a record amount that places the crop among the state's top 10 agricultural commodities, based on the most recent statistics available.
"We're struck by the amount of work they put into it," said Rich Wiley, who heads the Washington State Patrol narcotics program. "It's very labor intensive. They often run individual drip lines to each plant, and are out there fertilizing them."
The net results have a tremendous payoff to illegal growers, said Wiley, who coordinates pot busts with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency and local law enforcement agencies. A single plant can produce as much as a pound of processed marijuana, worth an estimated $2,000, he said.
The estimated $270 million value of the plants seized in 2005 ranked just above sweet cherries, which were valued at $242 million in 2004, and just below the $329 million the state's nurseries and greenhouses produced. Apples are the state's No. 1 agricultural commodity, bringing $962.5 million in 2004.
This is the seventh year in a row that record numbers of marijuana plants have been seized and destroyed statewide, the State Patrol said. The state's known pot harvest, based on seizures, went from 66,521 plants in 2003 to 132,941 in 2004, then to 135,323 last year.
Most of the growing operations were in eastern Washington, principally outdoors on federal or state land in remote locations near a source of water, the State Patrol said.
In recent years, marijuana crops have been larger and more sophisticated than in the past, law enforcement spokesmen said.
Douglas County sheriff's Chief Criminal Deputy Robbin Wagg said while some "mom and pop" crops of 500 or fewer plants are still being found, most are larger and more sophisticated, with as many as 10,000 plants being irrigated and tended.
Marijuana eradication efforts have been hampered by cutbacks in Air National Guard budgets and personnel have been assigned to tasks related to the Iraq war, Wagg said. National Guard helicopters are the most productive way to spot marijuana patches in the county's remote fields and draws, he said.
"We used to get three or four days of flying time. Now, it's one to 1 ½ days," he said. "They do a great job for us."
Wiley said last year, three National Guard helicopters and three provided by the DEA flew for a month during the marijuana harvest season in late summer, before they were assigned to Hurricane Katrina duties. About 80 percent of the finds are made from the air, he said.
Facing their own budget restrictions, law enforcement agencies in north-central Washington estimate they find perhaps half of the pot being grown illegally.
"We get half if we're lucky and good," Wagg said.