LIVERMORE (AP) – Summer is almost over and it’s almost harvest time.

The Maine Drug Enforcement Administration is using helicopters to try to reach marijuana plants growing in the woods before they can be harvested, processed and sold on the streets.

Though overshadowed by crack cocaine and heroin, marijuana remains a significant part of the state’s drug problem, said Roy McKinney, director of the MDEA.

“It’s the most abused drug in the nation after alcohol, and Maine is no exception,” he said. “And it is even more of a problem with our youth as a drug of choice and abuse.”

A national survey on drug use and health done by the federal Department of Health and Human Services found 36 percent of Mainers age 18 to 25 reported using marijuana in the past year. That’s one of the highest rates in the nation.

As part of the eradication effort, a Maine Army National Guard helicopter hovered over Livermore last week as an MDEA spotter radioed directions to agents mounted on all-terrain vehicles below, directing them to plots of bright green marijuana plants.

A thousand feet below, other agents negotiated trails through the woods and pulled up to a cluster of plants, some of them almost 5 feet tall.

Officials say it is hard to gauge how much of the marijuana sold and used in Maine is grown within the state’s borders. Police destroy an estimated 10,000 plants per year.

Officers say that merely dents the supply. But it’s an important dent nonetheless.

“Having drugs be illegal and having law enforcement do their job increases the price … (and) that decreases use, particularly by the marginal buyers who tend to be young people,” says Kim Johnson, director of the state’s Office of Substance Abuse. “We look at law enforcement as a key component of prevention.”

Johnson says Maine’s high marijuana use stems in part from a growing tolerance of the drug, which tends not to be associated with the violence and property crimes that other drugs spawn.

Though less addictive than some other drugs, marijuana can compound mental health problems, contribute to depression and lead to decreased cognitive function and motivation, Johnson said.

Most growers keep individual sites small, to reduce the chances they will be found and to avoid serious consequences if arrested. Cultivating fewer than 100 plants is a misdemeanor, so even aggressive growers use small plots.

Finding marijuana growing in the woods hinges on information from informants, intelligence from local police and tips provided by citizens.

“A lot of the areas we do visit are from calls we get on our hotline,” says Androscoggin County Sheriff Guy Desjardins, whose deputies participated in the eradication effort in Livermore. “Our communities and our citizens, they are concerned. If they have information about a patch somewhere, we need to respond to those.”

In helicopters, spotters look for telltale signs like trails that growers use to check on their crop, and even water lines extending from a house off into the woods. Spotters also keep watch for armed guards or signs of booby traps.

But the color is the most distinctive feature of mature marijuana plants.

“One of the primary ones is color – a distinct color green that stands out almost like a neon sign would,” said Tony Milligan, regional coordinator for the eradication effort.

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