The Jackson County Sheriff's Department spent more than $99,000 last year to search for and pull out marijuana plants.

The Jackson County Sheriff's Department spent more than $99,000 last year to search for and pull out marijuana plants.

Aerial surveillance using helicopters accounted for the bulk of the spending, but federal funds covered about two-thirds of the total cost, Sheriff Mike Winters said. The county's eradication efforts netted 44,168 plants here and another 20,000 on a trip to help the Siskiyou County Sheriff's Department, Winters reported.

He estimated the marijuana removed could have had a retail street value of up to $320 million.

No arrests were made during last summer's eradication campaign in Jackson County, but federal investigations into the operations are continuing, Winters said.

The large marijuana gardens that authorities targeted in August and September 2006 likely were the work of cartels, Winters said.

"This is a big cash crop, and there's lots of money in it," he said. "If we can take the cash out of a business, that hurts."

Getting rid of plants is an increasingly important strategy to disrupt the illicit drug market, according to The President's National Drug Control Strategy released in February by the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

"Federal, state and local authorities will continue to focus on the disruption of both indoor and outdoor marijuana production, both to discourage its production and use and to prevent traffickers from benefiting from what remains the most lucrative crop in the drug trafficker's illegal product line," the strategy document said.

The drug control policy office and the Drug Enforcement Administration have "shifted funding priorities to counter growing operations" in seven states, including Oregon, that authorities have identified as the top marijuana-growing states, the document said.

The top seven states — California, Hawaii, Kentucky, Oregon, Tennessee, Washington, and West Virginia — destroyed more than 5.5 million marijuana plants in 2006, while the rest of the country removed an additional 770,000 plants, the strategy document reported.

The DEA office in Seattle oversees Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Alaska, and Special Agent Matt Duran is a coordinator of the Domestic Cannabis Eradication/Suppression Program, DEA's effort to target, disrupt, and dismantle large-scale domestic marijuana-growing operations.

Duran said that while ongoing investigations into drug-growing operations are important, they are difficult in the remote forests that growers favor, so removing plants is a key to blocking such organizations.

"We have limited tools and the helicopter and spotter is the best tool," he said.

Jackson County's eradication efforts in August 2006 cost $3,275 in overtime for deputies and $8,200 for aerial surveillance. In September 2006, the spending on eradication included $32,160 in overtime, $52,880 for aerial surveillance and $2,660 for food and supplies, Winters reported.

"We spend this money just a few months out of the year," he said of the $99,170 total.

For fiscal year 2006-07, the sheriff's budget was $25.7 million for a department that operates the county jail and provides routine patrols and crime investigations across the county.

The sheriff's department has a $30,000 contract with the Bureau of Land Management to eradicate marijuana and got $40,000 through a U.S. Department of Justice eradication program. Just $29,170 came from the department's general fund budget.

"Jackson County should be proud," Winters said. "We did a good job and will continue to."

He also noted that his department got "a lot of help" from other agencies, including Josephine, Siskiyou and Douglas county sheriff's offices, Klamath Falls police, the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service, the Oregon State Police, the DEA and federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Winters said he didn't know the expenses for other agencies to help out here as law enforcement agrees to help across jurisdictions and doesn't bill for such services.

"If we don't want this in the region, we have to eradicate it one area at a time," he said, adding that he will help neighboring counties if they ask.

Winters said he hopes the aggressive removal of plants last year will discourage growing operations here this year.

"I think we will see the number of plants seized go down here," Winters said. "I think they will look for places with less law enforcement."

DEA Special Agent Duran said that in his seven years overseeing cannabis-eradication projects, he has seen aggressive plant removal dissuade growers.

"Over the years, if one county has a significant problem and hits it hard, often they don't come back," he said.

"Everybody needs to work together," he continued. "Together we are stronger."

Reach reporter Anita Burke at 776-4485 or at