Humboldt County program takes cannabis code enforcement to 'new heights,' wins award

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HUMBOLDT, Calif. — Humboldt County has taken its code enforcement of illegal cannabis grows to thousands of miles above the Earth, according to the California State Association of Counties.

The Humboldt County Planning and Building Department is using satellite footage to come across grows that are not in compliance through the Humboldt Environmental Impact Reduction Program, a press release said. The Humboldt County Board of Supervisors will receive the CSAC Challenge Award on March 10 for the program.

According to the press release, despite the legalization of cannabis, there are still a large number of illegal grows taking place, leading to sites that are not in compliance and significant environmental impacts. Previous to the program staff would be sent into the 4,000-square-mile county to search for illegal grows.

Use of satellite technology has resulted in the volume of cases being processed to increase tenfold, the press release said. Since the program was implemented, more than 1,000 non-compliant sites have been identified, about 400 have come into complete compliance, another third are working toward compliance and others have stopped growing.

“If cannabis is going to be a legal and regulated product, the illegal portion of it needed to be addressed and it needed to be addressed in a proactive way. That allowed us to be creative in ways to go about doing that,” County Planning and Building Director John Ford said.

The county was primarily dependent on citizen complaints before the satellite program. Inspecting three or four sites would take staff a full day to investigate. They would also encounter roadblocks such as numerous locked gates or not finding hidden cannabis grow, the press release said.

“From desktop computers we can monitor the entire expanse of the County,” Humboldt County Planning and Building Department Deputy Director Bob Russell said. “We can assess whether structures are permitted, if there’s been tree removal and grading and if that’s permitted, and very efficiently assess whether there’s violations on the property or whether it’s permitted activity.”

According to the Humboldt County website, the satellite program is achieving one of its primary goals: reducing environmental impacts. Sites without permits often involve poor grading, the use of pesticides, roads never intended for daily travel, failed culverts, badly engineered ponds and loss of tree canopy and timberland, the county said.

Humboldt County staff said they believe they are the first in the country to purchase satellite time to collect data solely for the purpose of identifying and monitoring cannabis operations. The press release said, while there is a cost involved with the purchase of satellite time, the County is saving significant amounts of staff time. With fines set at $10,000 per day for each violation, revenues have significantly exceeded the cost of the imagery and staff time to manage it, according to the Humboldt county website.

The Board of Supervisors will also receive the UC Cooperative Extension award for its Prescribed Fire Program from Graham Knauss, CSAC Executive Director on March 10.

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