California Is About to Deploy More Drones to Hunt Down Unregulated Weed Grows
While the feds hash out plans for using drones to hunt down illegal pot in the Emerald Triangle, Nevada County officials are working on their own drone surveillance program.
Published on September 14, 2021

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Unmanned drones will soon be flying over another California county on the hunt for black market weed farms. 

Nevada County, located on the Eastern end of the state, is allocating funds for a new pilot program that will help law enforcement track down unregulated weed farms. Local law enforcement has received dozens of complaints about potentially suspicious grow operations throughout the county, but 32 percent of these complaints could not be verified due to locked gates, fences, or other obstructions.

In order to get a birds-eye view of these hidden areas, the county has set aside $10,000 of its general fund to purchase unmanned drones and to train its staff to use them. Between now and next March, Cannabis Compliance Division staff will receive 10 to 15 hours of training and take a licensing exam to obtain a federally-approved drone pilot license. Once the training is complete, the county will deploy the drones from May through August of 2022 and then review the effectiveness of the program by February 2023. 

In addition to hunting down illegal weed grows, the drones may also investigate “other violations such as greenhouses, grading, electrical or other operations associated with cannabis cultivation that has not already been issued a permit,” said county code and compliance divisions program manager Jeff Merriman to The Union. The costs of implementing the program “will be recovered through the issuance and payment of administrative fines associated to cannabis enforcement activities,” he explained.

The county will take some steps to mitigate the inevitable privacy concerns brought up by the new surveillance program. Merriman said that drones will only be used to hunt down illegal weed grows, and only when all other surveillance methods have been exhausted. The drones will only be allowed to photograph potential violations and not individual people. Pilots will need to adhere to all federal regulations, and can only fly the drones over public property if prior approval is obtained.

Local cannabis industry associations support the county's efforts to crack down on their illegal competitors, but have some reservations about using drones to do so. “We acknowledge the county needs to verify these sites,” said Diana Gamzon, executive director of the Nevada County Cannabis Alliance, to The Union. “Our organization remains concerned with drones as the primary tool for verification, and instead supports existing tools, such as planes, to obtain the required information.”

Congress is also drawing up plans to use federal drones to hunt down illicit farms in the Emerald Triangle, home to a sizable portion of the country's illegal pot producers. California's black market producers vastly outpace the production of its legal industry, and these unlicensed growers often cut costs by using toxic pesticides that can seep into the soil and local waterways. Not only are these illegal farms often the culprit of poisoning rivers and wildlife, but they are also contributing to the raging wildfires that have been sweeping the state. 

Nevada County building director Craig Griesbach told The Union that two local illicit weed grows were responsible for starting wildfires. “One of the fire events happened during the Jones Fire of 2020, pulling air attack resources off the Jones Fire to address this concurrent threat to life and property,” he explained. “Cannabis-related violations, including generators that were not permitted on both sites, could have been verified with the use of [drone] technology and therefore mitigated before these fires started.”

Chris Moore
Chris Moore is a New York-based writer who has written for Mass Appeal while also mixing records and producing electronic music.
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