Do shrinking state and federal budgets spell an end to the DEA’s longstanding crop eradication efforts? Newly released data from the agency indicates that the answer may be yes.

While the DEA has been making headlines in recent years by raiding medical cannabis dispensaries in California, as well as to a lesser extent in Montana, Oregon and Washington, the federal anti-drug agency has largely turned its back on targeting outdoor and indoor pot grow sites.

According to the DEA’s recently released 2012 Domestic Cannabis Eradication/Suppression Statistical Report, the total number of cannabis plants eradicated nationwide have fallen a whopping 62 percent in recent years.  In 2010, the DEA reported eliminating some 10.3 million cultivated pot plants (this figure excludes the inclusion of feral hemp plants, tens of millions of which are also typically seized and destroyed by DEA agents annually). By 2011, this total had dipped to 6.7 million. In 2012, the most recent year for which DEA data is available, the total fell to 3.9 million -- the lowest annual tally in nearly a decade.

Chiefly responsible for this sudden and significant decline is a de-emphasis on California, despite its well deserved status as the largest domestic pot producer in the United States. In 2010, the DEA seized a near-record 7.4 million cultivated pot plants in the Golden State alone. By 2011, this total had fallen to four million. Last year, the DEA seized fewer than two million plants in California. By comparison, DEA eradication totals in several other leading grow states, such as Kentucky, Tennessee, Washington and West Virginia, have remained relatively stable during this same period (notably, despite Colorado’s rising reputation as a primary pot producer, the DEA reported seizing only 23,000 plants in 2012 -- almost all of which came from the raids of three separate outdoor grows -- a total that was virtually unchanged from 2008’s figures).

So what’s the story behind the sudden decline in DEA pot seizures? It’s not likely the result of any change in attitude from the Obama administration, as DEA seizures initially surged to record levels during the years immediately after Obama took office. A more plausible explanation is that the DEA’s about face is a consequence of fiscal belt-tightening, particularly in California, which has faced numerous budget crises in recent years. Notably, Governor Jerry Brown downsized and then ultimately disbanded the state’s nearly 30-year-old Campaign Against Marijuana Planting (CAMP) program, which notoriously utilized helicopter flyovers to identify marijuana grows in the forests on northern California.

Equally notable, the DEA’s budget also experienced cutbacks during this time, suffering a nearly $4 million reduction from 2011 to 2012. In CAMP’s place is a new program that allows local agencies to seek DEA reimbursement for expenditures related to cannabis eradication efforts. But as is abundantly clear from the 2011 and 2012 stats, the present effort is a mere shell of the now-defunct DEA/CAMP campaign. And while the Fed’s top anti-pot agency is, predictably, remaining mum about its decreased enforcement capabilities -- the DEA’s website refers to its ongoing eradication program as a “success” despite its rapidly declining numbers -- many elected officials are now calling for regulations to bring the cannabis cultivation market out of the shadows once and for all.

Paul Armentano is the deputy director of NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, and he is the co-author of the book Marijuana Is Safer: So Why Are We Driving People to Drink?