Humboldt County Gives Contradictory Explanations for Code Enforcement

National Guard helicopters circling Humboldt County.

As the California National Guard mobilizes to assist with cannabis code enforcement in the Emerald Triangle, Humboldt County officials have been going on record to address how law enforcement raids are being conducted and explain the code enforcement process to the public. The explanations are not always consistent, however.

For example, the sheriff and the deputy director of Building and Planning Department have offered diametrically opposed descriptions about how cannabis code enforcement actions are instigated. The explanations were unsolicited and made by each official specifically to stress important factors they believe the public needs to know. They just said the opposite thing.

This week, in direct response to local concerns about sightings of National Guard helicopters reconnoitering the area, Humboldt County Sheriff William Honsal posted a video to YouTube in which he addressed “CA National Guard’s assistance in cannabis enforcement this summer.” Toward the end of the 3-minute video, Sheriff Honsal said, “I want to remind everyone that we are a complaint driven department. When you have a complaint about an illegal marijuana garden you need to call us…”

In a May 9 article for the Eureka Times-Standard, however, Humboldt County Planning and Building deputy director Bob Russell is quoted as saying, “It’s also important to understand the enforcement (prior to April 2018) was complaint-driven action whereas now, Humboldt County has mandated we do active enforcement on unpermitted cannabis. It has indeed produced the desired effect with respect to unpermitted cannabis cultivation without having to drive around the county.”

Russell’s comment was made in reference to the 700 percent rise in county code enforcement in 2018 alone, the result of “data and imagery provided by a private satellite company,” reported Ruth Schneider for the paper.

“Prior to April 2018, when the county first contracted Planet for the satellite imagery and data, there were ‘far less than 100 (citations) per year,’” Schneider quoted Russel as saying. “Last season in our pilot year, we did just under 700 using the satellite imagery.”

In other words, according to Building and Planning, the entire 700 percent increase in abatement notices in 2018 was the result not of complaints but of a satellite imagery program that will continue unabated for at least another year and a half.

“In January, the county board of supervisors voted to extend the contract with Planet until December 2020. The staff report at the time noted extending the contract ‘allows staff to efficiently conduct critical code violations at a much higher volume than is possible using only static images,’ reported Schneider. “The contract with Planet costs the county about $200,000 per year. The services rendered through Planet only operate between March and November of each year.”

Sheriff Honsal, who stated unequivocally in the video that the county is “targeting those that are outside the permitting process,” made no mention of the satellite imagery program in his comments. Instead, he left the impression that complaints are driving cannabis code enforcement by his office in partnership with the state.

“[W]e are receiving a lot of tips actually from licensed marijuana cultivators…I appreciate the partnership we have with the legal growing community…We are there to protect them and their interests as well…,” said the sheriff in his video.

To an outsider, this looks less like a simple error or confusion between the agencies than an attempt by the sheriff to whitewash the impact of a county abatement program that, according to local attorney Eugene Denson, seems to have had the “unintended consequence of targeting mom-and-pop operations.”