SANTA CRUZ MOUNTAINS -- Venture into the virtual world of Google's satellite imagery and one can find, throughout the Santa Cruz Mountains, what appear to be very real, very large marijuana grows.
Visible to anyone with an Internet connection, the sites appear to be well-financed operations, frequently with bulldozed sites, long greenhouses and even staff. And they go to the heart of an ongoing county debate over whether suppliers of medical marijuana dispensaries should be regulated, both in remote mountain areas and in residential neighborhoods.
"If we do nothing, all of the socio-environmental issues we're currently seeing will get worse," said Supervisor Zach Friend, who has asked county staff to look into the issue as part of a suite of pot club rules the county board could weigh in September. "It's not a secret that this is an issue that needs to be addressed, and I'm hopeful that what we come up with returns neighborhoods to neighbors and environmentally sensitive areas back to nature."
It's not known whether the apparent marijuana operations depicted on Google Earth are street suppliers, sell directly to local medical marijuana dispensaries, or both. But officials say that is part of the problem -- marijuana is illegal under federal law, and while its medical use is allowed in the state, there are no standards for how the industry should be run.
Santa Cruz County sheriff'sspokesman Sgt. Patrick Dimick said local authorities can find themselves waiting for an evolving mix of local rules and court rulings before figuring how to respond to grow operations. A local licensing scheme would provide some clarity, he said.
As for whether local law enforcement would ever tap Google Earth as a resource, Dimick didn't rule it out.
"A lot goes into play as far as resources into an investigation," Dimick said. "It could stem from Google Earth, it could stem from interviews with people nearby, it could stem from search warrants for electricity bills. It goes on and on."
It is not clear if the operations are still in existence. Google uses commercial satellite imagery providers, and it can take awhile before those images make it to the Web. Pictures are typically at least six months old, and sometime several years old.
But the images also raise other issues, serving as a reminder that in the modern world, anyone's activities could be captured and recorded at any time -- even in the remote peaks of the Santa Cruz Mountains.
THE 'G' CONTROVERSY
Google did not respond to repeated attempts to reach it, but Google Earth has sparked controversy before. Local officials in one Florida city used Google Earth to check on code complaints, and officials in Greece and in Riverhead, N.Y., used it to look for unpermitted pools.
County Planning Director Kathy Previsich said Google Earth is one tool for local code compliance officers, as well. The department does not proactively look for violations, but it isn't hard to enter an address into Google.
"Certainly, when we get a complaint it's one of the ways of beginning to investigate," Previsich said.
The county board's regulation of grow operations is expected to come as part of a package of rules governing local pot dispensaries. The board is likely to require everything from minimum distances from schools to programs for low-income patients.
Medical marijuana providers have welcomed those rules, seeing them as an official stamp of approval after operating for years in a legal gray area. Ben Rice, a Santa Cruz attorney who works with several dispensaries, said grow regulations -- which would place the county on the cutting edge statewide -- are welcome as well.
"My clients are upset that there are people that are using terrible practices and ignoring sensible approaches and making it harder for everyone," said Rice, who also has called for testing pot for pesticides and other chemicals -- as a few other states have -- to protect patients and the land.
As for the legal implications of Google's accidental surveillance, Rice said he has seen law enforcement use Google Earth in court. But more often, he added, they conduct flyovers themselves rather relying on satellites.
"They don't really need them," Rice said.
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