Recent news headlines touted "Google Earth leads to 16 arrests for marijuana."
The story claimed the Narcotics Unit of the police in Switzerland used Google Earth to find the addresses of two farmers thought to be part of a drug ring. It goes on to say as Google zeroed in on the fields, police were able to "clearly see a large plantation of marijuana being grown," an area measuring 7,500 square meters. "With this evidence in hand the Swiss police were able to shut down the drug ring and ended up arresting 16 individuals and stopping their million-dollar illegal business," states the AP report.
Is this possible? Could Google Earth potentially be the next tool in drug enforcement?
Not likely, say drug enforcement officials.
"Google Earth is about a year behind in times, so you wouldn't have enough probable cause to write a search warrant, and it isn't that clear unless you're looking at a monster garden," says Sgt. Wayne Hanson of the Humboldt County Sheriff's Department Drug Enforcement Unit in California. Hanson has been in law enforcement for 25 years and has acted as sergeant in charge of the marijuana unit since 2000. His agency serves about 50 warrants for marijuana cultivation per year — both indoors and outdoors. While Google and similar tools simply can't be used to identify marijuana on the ground, Hanson says his agency does sometimes use it to locate structures that may used in conjunction with grow operations, such as houses or abandoned buildings. In fact, he reports more people are moving the plants indoors and going to new extremes to hide them.
Werner Benz, head of the media office for the Zurich State Police, set the record straight regarding Google's link to the drug arrests. It turns out the above story was misquoted. Benz maintains Lt. Senior Grade Norbert Klossner told an AP journalist last year that the plantation could still be viewed on Google Earth, and adds that Zurich does not work with satellite pictures in connection with drug operations.
Despite the abundance of technology in other areas of law enforcement, Sgt. Dennis Basley of the Racine County (Wis.) Sheriff's Department says the most useful tools to detect marijuana fields continues to be a combination of low-tech tactics including "[anything from] tip-offs and farmers finding it in their fields, to nighttime suspicious activity in agricultural areas." Basley goes on to say local hunters have stumbled upon a plant or two, and oftentimes persons in an unrelated marijuana case will simply inform on someone else.
Could such misleading reports work to thwart growers, nonetheless? Maybe, depending on a person's knowledge of satellite imagery — or their level of paranoia. But hearsay and fly-over choppers, like those used regularly in Humboldt County, still prove to be king in DEA investigations.
Though the military has toyed with things like heat signal technology to aid in investigations, it turns out nothing beats the prowess of an individual trained to identify fields of cannabis dappled amidst a changing landscape.
"There's no technology other than the human eye flying in a helicopter to spot marijuana hidden underneath the brush and the trees," says Hanson. "We're open to new ideas, but there's nothing space-age out there for identifying marijuana plants."