After hours of scrambling over rugged mountain terrain, members of Swaziland's anti-drug squad finally find what they're looking for: a secret field packed with some of the world's strongest marijuana.

Prized for its potency across the world, "Swazi Gold" is grown in the remote northern mountains of this tiny African kingdom, then smuggled into neighboring South Africa and on to Europe and North America.

Police in impoverished Swaziland say that despite dousing acres of towering plants with insecticide, they are losing the war on marijuana to dirt-poor peasants bent on protecting their most lucrative crop.

"We can't win this war," said Ngwane Dlamini, head of criminal investigation in the northern region of Hhohho.

"This is just a drop in the ocean -- the people are poor and they can get much more money for marijuana than maize or vegetables," he said as he sniffed at a six-foot plant in a field north of the regional capital, Pigg's Peak.

A handful of drug lords buy and sell Swaziland's marijuana -- the world's most popular illegal drug -- but most of the growing is done by subsistence farmers desperate for cash after four years of drought and hefty job cuts.

According to Swaziland's Council Against Drug and Alcohol Abuse, about 70 percent of small farmers in the Hhohho region -- where mountainous terrain makes growing maize tough -- turn to marijuana, or dagga as it is locally known.

The world's top law enforcement agency, Interpol, says southern Africa, including Swaziland, has the potential to overtake key marijuana producers such as Morocco and already sends major shipments to the West.

Like thousands of other peasant farmers in Hhohho, a woman who identifies herself only as Khanyesile ekes out a living from 30 limp marijuana plants hidden in thick undergrowth behind her rickety shack.

"My husband died and I lost my job at the local furniture factory -- I needed money to feed my five children and send them to school," she said.

Khanyesile, 45, has been jailed and fined for her dagga. Police have twice sprayed and burned her tiny fields, and once local thieves stole the entire crop just before harvesting. But a patchy income from selling shiny stones to tourists at the side of the road is not enough to feed her family, and she has no intention of giving up her plants despite the threat of up to six years in prison.

"You can't get money for maize . . . and it is difficult to grow, but a man from South Africa comes every month to buy my dagga," she said.

Khanyesile said that most of her neighbors also grow marijuana and that homesteads club together to minimize the risk for the man from South Africa, who arrives on foot across the mountains.

"I don't understand why the police want to stop us growing dagga -- it is the only way we can make money," Khanyesile said.

Police say that although peasants like Khanyesile are harmless enough, some of the bigger growers are swapping dagga for illegal firearms from South Africa and Mozambique, prompting a rise in gun crime in this sleepy nation.

Armed with assault rifles and several gallons of insecticide, Dlamini's anti-drug squad scours the region daily for dagga plantations in a bid to contain the industry.

"Look, they've left traces," Dlamini shouted to his colleagues as he held up the distinctive five-speared leaf of a marijuana plant.

But he knows that this country the size of New Jersey is teeming with thousands more fields than the one they were searching for.

The bigger growers penetrate the country's farthest-flung valleys, hiking deep into the forests across crocodile-infested rivers to avoid police.

Swazi marijuana, which is said to be more potent because of the soil and weather conditions, fetches a handsome premium. On the streets of Johannesburg, Swazi Gold is sold in 30-gram (one-ounce) bank bags, or "bankies," for 70 rand ($11) apiece, while coffee shops in Amsterdam -- where smoking marijuana is legal -- charge about 6 euros ($7.5) for one gram.

Khanyesile said she gets about 1,000 rand ($154) for two kilograms (4.4 pounds).

Police have seized 285 kilograms of marijuana so far this year and destroyed roughly 500 acres -- a fraction of the total, said Albert Mkhatshwa, head of the national drugs unit.

Small-fry dealers smuggle out their stash on foot, while the big guys find myriad ways to sneak their goods past customs. Police recently stopped a giant wooden fish headed for Italy packed with at least 30 kilograms of compressed weed.

But many experts say police are wasting their time, since marijuana is embedded in Swazi culture, smoked for centuries by farmers and used for medicine by traditional healers. Even Inspector Dlamini said the chief of his home village would smoke a dagga pipe twice a day.

A peasant farmer tends her crop of about 30 young marijuana plants in the country's northern Hhohho area.A Swazi policeman stands guard over a field of marijuana during a raid in the remote northern Lebombo mountains, where potent "Swazi Gold" is grown.