Sun Shines on County Pot Biz

Supervisors Vote to Establish Registry to Bring Growers 'Out of the Shadows'

Paul Wellman

The Board of Supervisors meeting on recreational pot was so confusing it lasted two and a half hours longer than planned. But it wasn’t because everyone was stoned. The Santa Maria hearing room was packed with consummate professionals, County Supervisor Steve Lavagnino noted, decidedly not characters from Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

Some marijuana growers in Santa Barbara County have been urging officials to establish a local regulatory framework so they can apply for state licenses when regulators start issuing them next January. To be eligible, growers must provide a form of authorization from their local jurisdictions.

If county officials failed to provide such or dragged their feet, growers said, they would be out of luck. They explained they would be less competitive with other places ​— ​a shame considering the area’s plush sunlight makes cannabis grow like weeds.

But on Tuesday, they breathed a sigh of relief. The county supervisors voted to set up a registry for marijuana growers that would allow them, as proponents put it, to “come out of the shadows.” Even though hundreds of marijuana operations exist in the county, there is no record of them, save for websites like weedmaps.com. “I don’t even think we know what the baseline is,” Lavagnino said. “Three hundred or a thousand. It’s kind of a gray area right now.”

It also proved to be cloudy in terms of political leanings. Supervisor Janet Wolf, a strong liberal progressive, was the only one to vote against the registry. “The whole industry for me is really troubling,” she said. “I know the voters voted for it, but it goes against what I’ve seen in the county,” including juvenile justice, CenCal (health insurance), and mental health issues.

The other county supervisors, though, had few reservations about moving forward. Even Supervisor Peter Adam, the far right-winger who owns a massive commercial farm, acknowledged, “Pandora’s box has been opened. … As much as I hate to say it, we should let them have their experiment,” he said, “and in half a decade or a decade, we’ll figure out if it was good or not and maybe we’ll rejigger the law.”

For the time being, the supervisors also voted to form a subcommittee ​— ​manned by supervisors Lavagnino and Das Williams ​— ​to study the various facets of the entire pot business, from cultivation to delivery.

They also passed a temporary ban on recreational cultivation, but it was largely procedural as at least three supervisors appeared inclined to repeal the ban after staff thoroughly develops local regulatory laws. It might seem odd that most growers actually called for more regulation, but they explained they worried a rushed ordinance would ultimately be prohibitive and sloppy, much like the one the state rolled out two years ago for medical marijuana.

During public comment, Andy Caldwell, a conservative who founded COLAB (Coalition of Labor, Agriculture & Business), raised the issue of taxation, cautioning those with “dollar signs on their eyes.” Typically, he said, people are taxed at the point of sale, and if marijuana is “exported just like wine, I don’t know if it is going to be a cash cow or not.”

But several longtime Carpinteria flower growers explained they had been in financial trouble until about five years ago when they started growing medical cannabis to augment sales. “We changed our business because cheap labor from Mexico was competing with our product,” said Barry Brand, a longtime Gerbera daisy grower.

A clear landscape of Carpinteria greenhouse growers now growing medical marijuana does not exist, but Jared Ficker, a media consultant representing several of them, estimated 20 to 30 percent have done so. The cut flower industry is largely gone, he explained, because a majority of flowers now come here from Colombia. But Carpinteria is still optimal for growing, he added, it’s just “a different flower.” He said, “There’s a reason everyone located greenhouses there 30 years ago.”

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