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Must read: Marijuana farming rebounds in economic hard times

BARBOURVILLE, Ky. - Machete-wielding police officers have hacked their way through billions of dollars worth of marijuana in the country's top pot-growing states to stave off a bumper crop sprouting in the tough economy.

The amount only got bigger Thursday when helicopter spotters in Tennessee discovered a pot field near the Kentucky border with hundreds of thousands of plants.

The number of plants seized has jumped this year in California, the nation's top marijuana-growing state, while seizures continue to rise in Washington after nearly doubling the previous year. Growers in a three-state region of central Appalachia also appear to have reversed a decline in pot cultivation over the last two years.

Officers in those areas, the nation's biggest hotbeds for marijuana production, have chopped down plants with a combined street value of around $12 billion in the first eight months of this year. While national numbers aren't yet available this year, officers around the country increased their haul from 7 million plants in 2007 to 8 million in 2008.

'A lot of that, we theorize, is the economy,' said Ed Shemelya, head of marijuana eradication for the Office of Drug Control Policy's Appalachian High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area. 'Places in east Tennessee, eastern Kentucky and West Virginia are probably feeling the recession a lot more severely than the rest of the country and have probably been in that condition a lot longer than the rest of the country.'

Growers in Appalachia are often hard-luck entrepreneurs supplementing their income by growing marijuana, authorities say. Troopers thrashing through the thick mountain brush there typically find plots that could easily be tended by a single grower, while officers in the two western states have focused on larger fields run by Mexican cartels with immigrant labor.

Officers assigned to the Tennessee Governor's Task Force on Marijuana Eradication were working Thursday to destroy an expansive marijuana field near Jellico, Tenn. Authorities said the patch may be the biggest ever found in Tennessee.