As the title may suggest, when asked about my most publicized or largest cases over the years, I get humorous reactions when I reply, “Ginseng.” In today’s backdrop of TV crime shows and 24-hour news cycles full of violence, I can understand that reaction. Poor Appalachian folks digging a seasonal plant in the forest hardly compares to cases like Making a Murderer on Netflix. But the reality is that ginseng is disappearing and the federal government is cracking down on poachers (or ‘sangers, in the local vernacular).
The next reaction I get after the chuckles wear off is, “I didn’t know that was illegal,” or “why is it illegal?” To answer the former, it isn’t entirely illegal. It is legal on private property, with the permission of the land owner. It is also allowed when in possession of a valid permit issued by the U.S. Forest Service; though issuance of such permits are becoming more restricted and only work for limited sessions (usually a couple of weeks).
What concerns the federal government and many botanists, however, is the latter question. It is illegal because ginseng is disappearing. In addition, once harvested, even after Rangers and Forest Service officers try to replant seized roots, it is typically too damaged to replenish itself or continuing growing. Ginseng also has a lengthy maturity timeline. Most plants take 7-9 years to mature, meaning they cannot produce seeds (small red ball-like objects that only appear during the summer), which then fall into the ground to create new ginseng roots.
The valuable part of the ginseng plant is the root. While a legal market for ginseng root exists, the real value to ‘sangers is the black market. The government’s agents estimate the root bringing $500-800 a pound, but I have heard firsthand accounts of up to $1200 per pound. That is serious cash for someone without means but an eye for ginseng. You can see why it may seem worthwhile when weighed against a possible 6-month jail sentence.
‘Sangers identify the root by the plant that pops out of the ground (easy to miss by the layperson on a leisurely hike). Once harvested, which usually occurs with some sort of digging tool, the root typically runs through a middle man and winds up in China or other parts of East Asia. Many eastern medicine followers believe the root has incomparable healing qualities and can help with virility. Who says there is an export deficit with China??
Either way, unless you have that limited permit mentioned earlier, it is best to not spend your time foraging in the federal forestland for this valuable, vanishing root. The Government won’t think it is so funny if they catch you. If you find yourself facing federal criminal charges, the skilled defense lawyers at our Asheville firm are ready to defend you. Call us today or fill out the contact form below to schedule a free consultation with one of our lawyers.