Aerial Compliance

By BCB Staff Writer


California has become synonymous with the legalized cannabis movement since 1996, when Proposition 215, or the Compassionate Use Act of 1996, was passed. In 1996, this legalization was ground-breaking, and due to the federal discrepancy, was met by mounting adversity by those in support of a strong federal presence.

Even still, those in favor of legalized cannabis were thrilled at the prospect of an untouched industry. Licensing for retail and plant-touching cannabusinesses were divvied up, and small business owners got to work cultivating their business models. Across the state, the cannabis grow operations sprouted. What suddenly began to work against the state’s Bureau of Cannabis Control was the influx of applications and those who went forward with their cultivation despite a lack of proper certification. With thousands of applications and a finite amount of licenses to go around, over the years, grow operations began to fall through the cracks.

In the past few years, heightened technology has stream-lined the license processing system. Social equity provisions have been added to licensing agreements across the United States after the city of Oakland brought to light the blatant socio-economic inequalities of the process. Humboldt County, around six hours south of Oakland, has been experiencing discrepancies in its cannabis market as well, but not of the racial and ethnic variety.

The Emerald Triangle, known to the cannabis community as the nation’s largest cannabis-producing region, contains Humboldt, Mendocino, and Trinity counties in Northern California. Growers in this area have been cultivating cannabis since the 1960s but experienced a surge of exposure once Proposition 215 was passed and then again with Proposition 64. Locals of these three counties swear by marijuana as a way of life, and ties to the industry extend into every facet of the inhabitants’ existence. 

According to the 2010 census, the population of the Emerald Triangle exceeded 235,000, most of whom take up residence in the hills and woods of the area. The issue with sparse population and a group of people who utilize cannabis grow operations as their means of survival is that these groups largely get overlooked and are grossly unmonitored. In the ’60s, marijuana growers took to hiding the crop under trees and away from civilization, which made them hard to enforce once permit compliance became regulated. Cannabis strains were being smuggled from Mexico and South Asia to breed hybrids illegally. Farms that had been hidden since the hippies of the 1960s were now asked to come forth and comply with land management measures. Those who grew up around cannabis were shunned for speaking about it.


“Humboldt is huge, and it’s remote, and it’s rugged, and it’s hard to access. They had a small team of people trying to drive around to find illegal marijuana grow sites. It wasn’t scalable, and it wasn’t sustainable in the long term.” – Paris Good, Planet


Jason Gellman, who has grown up in Humboldt and saw the enforcement measures of cannabis, remembered his childhood spent around the plant as abnormal, but normalized. “We couldn’t tell anyone, and that was just how our life was,” he said. 

“You didn’t think it was bad, because when your dad does it, and your mom does it, every single person, every single friend, grows weed—every one of their family members grows weed—it’s not looked upon as bad. It still isn’t bad, but you knew the outside world thought of it as bad.”

In 2018, Humboldt County struck up a deal with Planet, a Bay Area-based satellite imaging and analytics start-up. This partnership was in hopes of better tracking the challenges of the Green Rush through identifying illegal and unpermitted cultivation operations. The Green Rush came when implants started settling in Northern California from the East Coast, Texas, and even as far away as Bulgaria. Cannabis growth was uncontrolled, and pesticides roamed the waterways freely. Deforestation and mountaintop removal followed, dramatically changing the topography and leaving the land ransacked of redeeming qualities.

“Humboldt is huge, and it’s remote, and it’s rugged, and it’s hard to access,” Paris Good, who works with Planet’s customers, said. “They had a small team of people trying to drive around to find illegal marijuana grow sites. It wasn’t scalable, and it wasn’t sustainable in the long term.”

Growers are required to have proper certification from the Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Water Resources Control Board, and CalCannabis, California’s cannabis division, as well as local regulations. From there, enforcement was up to the counties’ Planning and Business departments. The topography of the terrain is difficult to navigate, and with hundreds of legal operations, getting around to all of them became strenuous. To combat that and ease the compliance checks, the county took to the sky. In April 2018, imagery from Planet started breaking ground, guiding law enforcement to an eventual 700 citations. To put that number in perspective, the entire year of 2017 brought in less than 100.

Planet, a company founded by three former NASA scientists, utilized ultra-compact satellites that were cheap to manufacture and launch, but that incorporated the lens resolution required. To date, the company has launched more than 360 satellites that collect footage on a daily basis, and each image taken has direct location information attached. Location matters not only to track down those who don’t comply, though. Cannabis is a guzzling water plant. One plant uses around twice the amount of water that wine grapes need. Aerial imaging also helps in the event that water is being rerouted by illegal means for personal use.

Humboldt County’s permit department takes these images and digitizes them. Then, Bob Russell and the rest of the Humboldt County Planning and Building department combine the current snapshot with datasets from past software and create overlays. In the event that something changes, Russell added that “we’ll evaluate that parcel to see what was permitted on the parcel. If there was no building permit or agricultural exemption for the greenhouse that we can see in the image, that’ll be a violation. If they did grading for new structures without the grading permit that’s required, that’s another violation.”

This process, launched for over two years, has cited a thousand unpermitted cannabis locations. Seventy percent of those illegal grow operations have been settled and are now in compliance, while a much smaller portion (only a third of the county’s cultivators) are working toward complying with the Humboldt Environmental Impact Reduction Program. The rest stopped growing altogether.

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