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Nevada County to use drones in search of illegal pot grows

County to surveil illegal pot by drones

Unveiling a plan for Unmanned Aircraft Systems, the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday approved a pilot program in order to inhibit the proliferating number of illegal cannabis growers in Nevada County.

Craig Griesbach, building director, and Jeff Merriman, director of code compliance, co-lead a presentation of the high tech tool. Griesbach said the Unmanned Aircraft Systems — drones — will not only compel numerous illegal growers into compliance, but added they’re also more efficient, and assure greater safety for code compliance officers. They’re also less expensive than other surveillance methods.

There are an estimated 3,500 to 4,000 illegal growers in the county, according to a Civil Grand Jury report published in May.

In a 4-to-1 vote, supervisors passed the $10,000 pilot program that is expected to be implemented in April. Supervisor Heidi Hall opposed.

“Illegal growers are a problem,” Hall said. “But there are many issues of privacy. How do we handle the photos when they come back?”

Supervisor Hardy Bullock, a pilot, called the drones an imperfect yet valuable tool.

“I’m aware of staffing recruitment needs and high level supervision, but this is a community preservation issue,” he said. “By singling out illegal growers we actually support permitted growers, so I’m in support as long as we interject strict guidelines.”

Griesbach said drones are considerably less expensive than using planes or helicopters, which can cost up to $900 per hour, while drones can make several flights per case to gather sufficient evidence at far less expense. He also explained the process will still be complaint driven by neighbors who witness illegal grows.

Drones will file a flight plan, and follow only public right-of-way routes. All data collected will follow strict privacy guidelines, and drone pilots will complete 15 hours training and must then pass a licensing test.

Hall said she supports more law enforcement of illegal growers who are damaging the environment and depleting water used for fire prevention. However, she asked why the county shouldn’t rely on established methods of investigating, like helicopters and planes.

“I don’t think drones are the way to go,” she said.

Many public comments were said in opposition to the drones. One resident, Tara Thornton, called it a civil liberties issue, adding that many people do not approve of this high tech tool because they view it as invasive and annoying.

“We don’t have to open this door,” she said.

Other public commenters agreed and added drones will override the warrant requirement, and will target small, backyard growers with no more than a dozen plants when the truly egregious growers are well funded commercial enterprises with multiple greenhouses at their disposal.

William Roller is a staff writer with The Union. He can be reached at wroller@theunion.com

This story was updated on Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021

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