Eye in the sky: Drone monitoring of Nevada County cannabis in the pipeline

Thirty-two percent of cannabis complaints couldn’t be confirmed in Nevada County because of locked gates, fences and other visual obstructions.

Two of those unverifiable sites ended up as wildfires, said Craig Griesbach, county building director.

“One of the fire events happened during the Jones Fire of 2020, pulling air attack resources off the Jones Fire to address this concurrent threat to life and property,” said Griesbach. “Cannabis-related violations, including generators that were not permitted on both sites, could have been verified with the use of (drone) technology and therefore mitigated before these fires started.”

A pilot program involving the use of drones to spot illegal cannabis grows is set to start this spring in Nevada County.

A one-time cost of $10,000 that covers the tools and staff training is a general fund allocation, said Jeff Merriman, county code and compliance divisions program manger.

“Costs will be recovered through the issuance and payment of administrative fines associated to cannabis enforcement activities,” he added.

Officials anticipate they’ll purchase equipment and perform staff training from now through March. The program will last from May through August 2022. From November 2022 through February 2023, there will be a review of program activity, data and a report to supervisors.

“Cannabis Compliance Division field staff will be the only staff licensed to utilize this tool,” Merriman said. He said there will be 10 to 15 hours of training. There’s also a required licensing exam and annual testing to maintain the drone pilot license, which is done through the Federal Aviation Administration.

Merriman said his department is specifically looking for cannabis cultivation that is not permitted.

“This will include plants, but may also include other violations such as greenhouses, grading, electrical or other operations associated with cannabis cultivation that has not already been issued a permit.”

Program guidelines are specific in that only photos of a violation will be taken. There are to be no photos of people.

“Furthermore, the tool will only be operated vertically from a publicly accessible area or a reporting party’s parcel when consent is provided,” said Merriman. “This is the only program in the state we are aware of which limits the ability to fly over a private parcel.”

Should someone attempt to disable the drone by shooting at it, or if a malfunction or accident immobilizes the drone, the cannabis program manager will be told immediately and an incident report will be filed with the county’s risk management department. Also, the FAA will be informed within 10 days, as required by law.


Griesbach also said a reasonable expectation of privacy will remain. The drones will only be used in instances of illegal cannabis cultivation. All drone surveillance will be exerted only if all other tools have been attempted and exhausted. Flight paths will adhere to public right-of-way and fly over public property only if prior approval is obtained. In addition, all flight plans will be approved by program managers and all FAA regulations will be followed.

Questions were raised at an August supervisors meeting about drone surveillance being an invasion of privacy.

Michael Vitiello, a law professor at the McGeorge School of Law at the University of the Pacific, said as long as drones are flying at navigable air space — which the Supreme Court does not define — that such surveillance is not unreasonable and will not violate the Fourth Amendment protections of unreasonable search.

Diana Gammon, executive director of the Nevada County Cannabis Alliance, said her organization supports enforcement against egregious non-permitted cannabis farms.

“We acknowledge the county needs to verify these sites,” said Gamzon. “Our organization remains concerned with drones as the primary tool for verification, and instead supports existing tools, such as as planes, to obtain the required information.”

Gamzon said there’s currently an oversupply of product in California, causing a decrease in prices. Incentive to enter or remain in the industry is low.

“To ensure our industry succeeds, our focus in Nevada County must be to support our existing cannabis businesses by creating opportunity for additional license types, including tourism opportunities,” she said.

William Roller is a staff writer with The Union, a sister publication of the Sierra Sun. He can be reached at

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