COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — It’s a small plant that is costing people in Ohio a lot of money and, in some cases, landing them in jail.

The Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) just spent years looking into the illegal trading of ginseng, or green gold.

People can make hundreds of dollars off the plant. If you’re following the laws, and there are a lot of them, you can harvest it. However, ODNR officers are out to stop the people looking to make quick cash illegally off this root.

“I was very surprised with the amount of illegal activity that we had uncovered,” an undercover officer with the ODNR said. “We have ginseng in every county in Ohio. We document it being dug in all the counties.”

The officer goes undercover to catch people illegally buying, selling, and harvesting ginseng.

“It’s a plant that is mostly used for medicinal purposes,” Coshocton County State Wildlife Officer Jerrod Allison said. “We find it may be locally in some energy drinks, face creams, that kind of stuff here. A lot of our ginseng that is harvested in Ohio or in the United States is exported out of the country.”

Farm-raised ginseng is in things like tea and vitamins; wild ginseng is what ODNR is regulating.

“Unfortunately, people are always looking for an easy payday, and that’s an easy way for somebody to go out, dig some ginseng illegally, and then trade it to the next person to feed their drug habit,” Allison said.

Through undercover sales and a lot of teamwork, ODNR officers found that the plant is sometimes traded for drugs like methamphetamine.

“We did run into ginseng being traded straight for the hardcore drugs,” the undercover officer said. “We ended up working with the drug task force and SWAT teams and hit those houses that that was occurring in.”

“Depends on the year, but we can be looking for anywhere between $500, maybe $600, maybe $1,000 for a pound of ginseng, so it can be an easy way for somebody to go out, make some money kind of off the books,” Allison said. ” It’s very sought after and it is something we want to protect. We’ve seen other countries where a lot of this ginseng is being exported to, they don’t have any ginseng anymore. They have very little ginseng. So, we want to make sure that we protect that for our generations to have for hopefully a long time.”

Ohioans need to be licensed to sell ginseng. The ODNR investigation focused on unlicensed and licensed dealers and out-of-season diggers.

According to ODNR, the people caught paid a “combined $76,178 in fines and $21,633.05 in court costs, with an additional $20,871.68 in cash being forfeited. Courts ordered a total of 7,986 days of jail time; 2,068 days were served, and the rest was suspended. Those charged with drug-related crimes were ordered to serve 12 to 15 years in prison. Additional penalties included probation, community service, home confinement, suspension of ginseng dealer permits, and suspension of digging ginseng.”

The harvest season for wild ginseng starts Sept. 1 and goes through Dec. 31.

Some of the laws include that the plants that are picked must have at least three “prongs” and the seeds from the plant you dig must be replanted after harvesting. You cannot harvest on public property and must have permission to harvest on private property.

People looking to sell the plant must be licensed and report the sales.

“Any illegal acts in ginseng in Ohio is a misdemeanor of the first degree, which means it could be up to $1,000 in fines,” Allison said. “There also could be a six-month jail sentence. Additionally, a judge could order restitution to the landowner who lost the ginseng from their property. We also hope to see with people that are digging ginseng illegally that the judge would also order some type of suspension to where they could not dig and deal in ginseng hopefully for a period of year or years.”