Humboldt County eyes using satellites to enforce cannabis industry violators

A satellite image of the Honeydew from Planet Labs Inc.’s application to Humboldt County shows several greenhouses within the hills. The county is considering entering into a one-year, $199,500 contract with the San Francisco-based company to provide updated images to help with cannabis industry enforcement.
A satellite image of the Honeydew from Planet Labs Inc.’s application to Humboldt County shows several greenhouses within the hills. The county is considering entering into a one-year, $199,500 contract with the San Francisco-based company to provide updated images to help with cannabis industry enforcement. Screenshot From Humboldt County staff report

Humboldt County is eyeing a new contract with a satellite imagery company that will allow it to both target black market cannabis grows and determine whether legal cannabis farms illegally expanded within the last year-and-a-half.

On Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors was set to consider approving a nearly $200,000, one-year contract with the San Francisco-based Planet Labs Inc. to provide high-resolution satellite imagery for the county at least five times per year. The contract was pulled from the board’s agenda — the clerk of the board’s office said it did not have information on who specifically requested it be pulled — to be brought back at a future meeting.

County Planning and Building Department Director John Ford said Tuesday that with increased staff and regularly updated satellite images, the department’s code enforcement unit is set to ramp up enforcement against “the most egregious violators” in the black market this summer.

“We have an in-house goal, which I won’t state,” Ford told the board. “But I’ll say, in the idea of departmental philosophy of underpromise and overdeliver, we want to hit at least 500 this summer.”

Ford said the most recent, consistent satellite imagery the department has at its disposal is from 2016. The Planet Labs contract will give his department access to regularly updated satellite imagery as well as images dating back to the latter half of 2016.

“With the updated images, it will allows us to identify the violations that have occurred over the past year and a half and pursue those with a high priority,” he said.

Ford was unavailable for an interview Wednesday.

Planet Labs describes its services in a promotional video as being a type of “macro search engine for the earth” — like Google for what’s on the Earth’s surface. The company says it can index everything from the number of cars parked at a Iowa shopping mall to active oil pads in Russia.

Ford said that his department is also going to be specifically targeting local watersheds that the state has determined to be critical for threatened fish species and that have already been impaired.

The Board of Supervisors is currently considering an update to its cannabis industry rules, which includes a cap on the number of indoor, outdoor and mixed-light farms allowed in the county. The farm cap is divided among local watersheds, with the board favoring a proposal that would cap the number at around 3,000 and not allow any new farms in critical watersheds.

Still, questions remain about the county’s ability to enforce against thousands of grows with limited staff and resources.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Ford sought to correct the notion that the county was having to enforce against 15,000 grows, which is a number the county officials have used to describe the scale of the industry. Ford argued this number doesn’t take into account how many parcels are being used for cannabis cultivation.

Previously unreleased data from an upcoming UC Berkeley study was shared by Ford on Tuesday. The study mapped 52 percent of the county and found that the number of grows increased from 2012 to 2016 from 3,783 to 6,656. Looking at the number of parcels where these grows were occurring, the study found that there were 1,536 parcels with grows in 2012 compared with 2,365 in 2016, Ford said.

Instead of facing 15,000 grows, Ford said you could assume from the data that the county is having to enforce about 4,600 parcels or 6,000 parcels if he wants to be “ultra-conservative.”

“So what does this mean?” Ford said. “It means that if we take 50 percent of the existing population of cultivators, they’re not regulated. That has a much higher impact upon the environmental benefit of regulating 50 percent of the total population versus 3,000 of 15,000 [grows].

“Because if you’re regulating 3,000 of 15,000, it seems like you’re barely denting the overall impact,” Ford said. “But this puts it into a much different perspective.”

Of the 2,365 cannabis cultivating parcels found by the UC Berkeley study, 1,085 are in the county’s permitting process, Ford said.

One of the limiting factors for his department’s enforcement ability is paperwork processing. Ford said his department has brought on an administrative assistant and legal office assistant to help with paperwork, which he said will allow his department to “double, triple or more our efforts.”

Earlier in Tuesday’s meeting, the board approved a $29,000 contract with the Los Gatos-based recruiting firm William Avery & Associates to find candidates for county public defender. The interim public defender Marek Reavis said he is hoping the board considers him for permanent appointment to the position given his experience with the department.

Will Houston can be reached at 707-441-0504.

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