How Humboldt County is Managing Marijuana with Satellites

Satellite image of Humboldt County. Photo: Planet Labs Inc

Northern California’s Emerald Triangle, a region including Mendocino, Trinity and Humboldt Counties, is the largest cannabis-producing region in the United States. Sitting dead center in that triangle is Humboldt County, known for decades of marijuana production and some of the world’s top-notch pot farms.

Cannabis farming has always been a regulatory nightmare for county officials, only made worse when regulations were ramped up due to the legalization of recreation cannabis in California. In order to best enforce regulations on marijuana cultivators in the county, both legal and illegal, Humboldt officials are using satellites to identify unpermitted and illegal grows in the thick wilderness of the North Coast.

The county has partnered with San Francisco satellite startup Planet to keep a close eye on the crops of Humboldt from the sky.

“Humboldt is huge and it’s remote and it’s rugged and it’s hard to access,” said Paris Good, a customer success manager at Planet. “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.”

To deal with these challenges, Humboldt County used Planet’s high resolution SkySat imagery to proactively identify and monitor applicants and permitted and unpermitted cannabis cultivation operations across the county. The SkySat spatial resolution was able to easily distinguish small forest disturbances and expansion of operations, helping the county and cultivators achieve greater compliance.

“Previously, Humboldt County had a complaints-based, reactionary model to enforcement that was resource-intensive and insufficient for deterring violations,” says Humboldt County’s planning and building department deputy director Bob Russell. “Reliable and timely data and large coverage at the needed temporal and spatial resolution empowered us to exceed our program objectives, resulting in both viable deterrents to violators and incentives for applicants and permit holders leading to greater compliance.”

Illegal cannabis operations typically aren’t in compliance with environmental code, causing irreparable harm to the ecosystems of the NorCal wilderness. Officials have found that 72 percent of illegal grow operations are using the pesticide Carbofuran. The pesticide is used to kill off insects and animals that may come in contact with the marijuana site, and it works very well. One teaspoon of Carbofuran could kill a 300-pound bear.

Another issue is water usage. The Cannabis Removal on Public Lands Project, which is dedicated to restoring criminal grow sites on state and federal property in California, estimates that 9 billion gallons of water is diverted to illegal marijuana grows on public lands. That’s enough water for the year for a town of 35,000 people.

While some may see this action as a violation of their privacy rights with a conspiracy theory mindset like Gene Hackman in Enemy of the State, the practice is perfectly legal and allows county officials to allocate compliance funds responsibly. It’s also much safer for enforcement officials in the field.

Government officials are now regulating marijuana from space. Welcome to the future.

Active NorCal

Telling the Stories of Northern California
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