by David Downs
Over the past several months, a single-engine, Cessna-type plane registered to an undisclosed federal law enforcement agency has been circling above the epicenter of the national legalization movement: Oakland, and Berkeley. A narcotics interdiction expert says the plane's model, low altitude and habit of loitering over cities for hours and hours is consistent with DEA anti-pot operations, wherein the federal agency looks for the tell-tale heat signatures of grow houses and the special green color of outdoor gardens.
One Alameda resident, Marcy Englert, says Oakland International Airport staff told her the FBI was thermal imaging the East Bay when she called to complain about the incessant whine of the small craft circling the island in early September. The Englerts work from home and the plane had become a daily annoyance. Legalization Nation confirmed with Oakland Airport spokesperson Rosemary Barnes that there is indeed a federal law enforcement aircraft performing “public safety operations” above the East Bay, but she didn't have any details on the agency or its specific activity.
During a recent overflight, Legalization Nation called the Oakland Airport noise abatement hotline and posed as an annoyed East Bay resident. Hotline staff said they'd received dozens of such complaints about the craft over the last four months. There's actually two, single-engine “Jena” or “Idaho” type crafts, one red and one blue, the staffer confirmed. The planes have spent two to three weeks circling Alameda, two weeks above Berkeley and two months circling Oakland this summer, the staffer said. He could not detail what federal law enforcement agency owned the plane or its purpose.
“Whenever he goes up there and circles, we get calls,” the staffer said.
Barry Cooper, a former narcotics officer turned pro-pot activist and creator of the 2009 documentary Never Get Raided, says DEA anti-pot operations often involve low-flying small planes affixed with a camera system called FLIR that detects excess heat from grow house ventilation. They also use a plane-based camera system dubbed 'pot-buster' that can detect from 5,000 feet up the specific wavelength of light reflecting off an outdoor marijuana garden. [See pictures of a camera system attached to the same “Idaho” model aircraft as reported in the East Bay]. These planes will circle an area tagging suspect locations with GPS coordinates.
The Supreme Court ruled thermal imaging a private residence unconstitutional without a search warrant, but the eight-year narcotics veteran says in his experience, “they're using them anyway to spot suspicious houses. Then they set up and look for another reason to get the warrant. They do not put in the search warrant affidavit that they used the FLIR. They'll put in the search warrant affidavit that they saw cars coming in and out of the place, or their power usage was too high, or they got an undisclosed tip.”
Authorities could simply be reconnoitering the nation's hotbed of legalization for intelligence purposes, Cooper says.
“This is something that the feds do. It's a billion-dollar industry. They like to keep up with where it's being grown and how it's being grown. They're possibly gathering data to discover exactly how much.”
FBI Special Agent Joseph Schadler, a spokesperson on Northern California operations, said he's not aware of big operations requiring Cessnas and thermal imaging. Schadler can't confirm or deny the existence of any FBI investigation, but, “we don't do dope stuff,” he said.
DEA Special Agent Joycelyn Barnes, a local public information officer, said she was unaware of any activity. The DEA also does not comment on ongoing investigations or practices. Barnes said the plane could be another federal law enforcement agency. The resident agent in charge of the DEA's Oakland office said this was the first time he had heard of such an operation.
The Department of Justice has stated, "it will not be a priority to use federal resources to prosecute patients with serious illnesses or their caregivers who are complying with state laws on medical marijuana", but federal anti-pot operations continue nationwide at pre-Obama levels. Cannabis is legal for medical use in California, however the federal government considers it a Schedule-One controlled substance on par with heroin and PCP.
Local growers combat imaging technology with a variety of countermeasures. Some grow in basements and vent heat from lights and fans into the sewers. Other set up glass or reflective materials to block vented heat from a grow. Outdoor gardeners have also started masking the tell-tale color of their crop — which has entered harvest season — with spray-on food dyes, Cooper says.