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Drones to Deploy in California County to Detect Illicit Pot Operations

drone flying

The effort of using drones to spot illegal grows is supported by legal operators who can’t compete with illicit operations.

A dystopian reality of government-controlled drones hovering overhead is a reality for growers in Nevada County, California, but the effort to locate illegal operations is supported by local cannabis organizations such Nevada County Cannabis Alliance. 

In many areas in California, growers have the challenge of competing with illicit operations amid an epic oversupply problem—driving some operators into the black market. 

However, Nevada County officials aren’t playing anymore. According to officials, about one-third or 32 percent of cannabis-related complaints in the county couldn’t be locked gates, fences and other visual obstructions. County building director Craig Griesbach claims that two of those sites were linked to 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,” Griesbach told The Union. “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.”

A pilot program involving the use of drones to spot illegal cannabis grow operations is planned to kick off this spring in Nevada County, with the risk of wildfires as one of the justifications.

With a price tag of $10,000, covering the tools and staff training will fall under a general fund allocation, said Jeff Merriman, county code and compliance divisions program manager.

The plan is to purchase equipment and perform staff training from now through March. The program will last from May through August 2022. From November 2022 through February 2023, there will be a review of program activity, data and a report to supervisors.

“Cannabis Compliance Division field staff will be the only staff licensed to utilize this tool,” Merriman said. He said there will be 10 to 15 hours of training. There’s also a mandatory licensing exam and annual testing to hold a drone pilot license, which is done through the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

In the event that someone attempts to shoot the drone down, or if a malfunction or accident occurs, the cannabis program manager will be notified immediately and an incident report will be filed with the Nevada County office of the Risk Manager. 

Also, the FAA will be informed within 10 days, as required by law.

Support for Drones in the California Legislature

Last month, a House appropriations committee backed federal efforts to track down illicit grow operations on public lands in California. If issues around cybersecurity and domestic production can be resolved so that the drones can be fully trusted, it could become a reality in more areas. 

That effort was supported by Representative Chellie Pingree (D-ME), who chairs the Appropriations Interior & Environment Subcommittee, and Representative Dave Joyce (R-OH) co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus.

But citizens in Nevada County worry about privacy. However, Michael Vitiello, a law professor at the McGeorge School of Law at the University of the Pacific said the officials are within their rights regarding Fourth Amendment protections.

Diana Gammon, executive director of the Nevada County Cannabis Alliance, told The Union that her organization supports enforcement against illegal cannabis farms.

“We acknowledge the county needs to verify these sites,” said Gamzon. “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.”

As there is currently an oversupply of cannabis in California, prices are dropping, therefore, the incentive to enter the industry is pitiful at the moment.

“To ensure our industry succeeds, our focus in Nevada County must be to support our existing cannabis businesses by creating opportunity for additional license types, including tourism opportunities,” she said.

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