Aerial School on Marijuana Teaches How to Spot Plants
by Ben Brown, (30 Jun 2006) Ukiah Daily Journal California
Pilots from law enforcement agencies throughout the country have been in Mendocino County this week learning to identify marijuana gardens from the air at the Aerial Observation School.
Forty-two students from across California and as far away as the East Coast have been flying above Mendocino County's national forests and private forest land learning to spot the illegal gardens.
"It's the biggest class we've run," said Rusty Noe, commander of the County of Mendocino Marijuana Eradication Team.
Pilots and students fly deep into the forests and try to find marijuana gardens that Noe and members of COMMET have already identified. Noe said marijuana gardens can be recognized from the air because they are a different color than forest undergrowth and the plants are laid out in an ordered fashion..
Because of their size, Noe said he had seen gardens as large as half a mile across; pilots can often identify them from as high as 500 or 600 feet. Noe said it is actually easier to recognize marijuana gardens from higher up because it gives officers a fuller view of the area.
"The lower you fly, the harder it is to see it," Noe said.
Mendocino County has been hosting the observation school since 1998 with the help of the Butte County Sheriff's Department, Placer County law enforcement, the National Guard and the Drug Enforcement Agency, among others.
"The whole situation is a collaborative effort," Noe said.
Mendocino County hosts the school because there are many large marijuana gardens in the area. Officers also come to take advantage of the expertise of Noe and the officers on COMMET.
Aerial identification of marijuana gardens is essential to fighting the cultivation of marijuana, Noe said. COMMET receives some of its tips from the public, but most large gardens are hidden deep in the woods where people aren't going to see them.
Noe said he has been seeing more and bigger gardens this year than in previous years. He said he wasn't sure why that might be.
"It goes in cycles," he said. "This is the year they're going for broke."
Noe said the heavy rains that plagued Mendocino County until March have slowed the marijuana crop. He said COMMET has been seeing baby plants and plants in nurseries, two things that are almost unheard of this late in the season.
Smaller plants may mean a later harvest season for many marijuana growers. Normally, the harvest season runs between July and October. It is also during this season that COMMET performs raids on identified marijuana gardens.
COMMET often works with the California attorney general's Campaign Against Marijuana Planting to raid gardens and eradicate plants. In 2005, CAMP seized and destroyed 1,134,692 marijuana plants, which had an estimated street value of $4.5 billion.
In 2005, COMMET raided more than 397 marijuana gardens in Mendocino County and eliminated 144,159 marijuana plants.
The Aerial Observation Training School will continue training through Friday.