Over the past several months, a single-engine, Cessna-type plane apparently 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 Drug Enforcement Administration 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 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 on an "Idaho" model aircraft on our blog.] These planes will circle an area tagging suspect locations with GPS coordinates.
The US Supreme Court has ruled thermal imaging a private residence unconstitutional without a search warrant, but the eight-year narcotics veteran Cooper 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 in the hotbed of legalization for intelligence purposes, Cooper said. "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 couldn't confirm or deny the existence of any FBI investigation, but said, "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 from 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. Others 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.
Seeds & Stems: Prop 19 Roundup
The Oakland-born ballot initiative to tax and regulate cannabis like alcohol is winning in two new polls. The independent, non-partisan Field Research Corporation said September 26 that Prop 19 was winning 49 to 42 among likely voters. The Field Poll surveyed 599 likely California voters and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.1 percentage points. Similarly, a new survey by Public Policy Polling found Prop 19 winning 47 to 38, with a margin of error of 3.9 percent. Both polls point out the importance of "undecided" voters — 9 percent in the Field poll and 14 percent in the PPP study. Undecideds could swing the election either way in the coming weeks, just as the opposition to Prop 19 ratchets up its fear campaign. Last week, alcohol lobby-backed No on 19 group Public Safety First e-mailed several hundred thousand Christian fundamentalists pleading for donations and threatening "legalized recreational marijuana in schools" if Prop 19 passes.