You couldn’t walk through downtown Santa Barbara on New Year’s Day without smelling weed.
Friends out to lunch could be heard casually chatting about it, and teenagers lit up as they strolled down the street. Meanwhile, all across the state, hippies three times their age rejoiced, never having thought they’d live to see the day when marijuana was legalized.
Weed was coming out of the shadows.
But today, almost a month since the state of California allowed the sale of cannabis for recreational purposes, how far do Santa Barbara residents have to go to find a shop that sells legal marijuana?
The answer, at least for now, is Los Angeles.
That’s where I went a few days into the New Year. After a two-hour jaunt down Highway 101, I found myself walking past the Russian bakeries, pawn shops, and bodegas of Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood. A block past Fairfax, I reached Alternative Herbal Health Services, where a man who calls himself “Bird” was perched behind an iPad. He welcomed customers to what he emphatically described as an “adult-use” cannabis shop — dismissing the term “recreational” as “flamboyant” — and took photographs of my license, which he entered into a digital database. Then Bird directed me to a doorway overseen by a security guard who looked as if he were in high school.
Inside it looked like a bakery. A glass-covered countertop housed gummies and chocolates and brownies. A six-foot-tall touch-screen vending machine filled with cannabis sat in the corner. Vaporizer pens and handblown pipes filled glass display cases. A stack of Green Buds and Hash, a parody of the Dr. Seuss children’s book, sat on a bookshelf. The shop had partnered with the Netflix series Disjointed, so the series played on a big-screen TV in the foyer.
I felt like a deer in headlights, overwhelmed by brand names and strains of cannabis. A bud-tender explained the psychoactive effects of sativa, indica, and hybrid strains. “Take your time,” she said patiently as I scanned the products. Card-carrying medical-marijuana patients had their own line and weren’t forced to wait behind the many people who were visiting a dispensary for the first time.
I picked out an assortment: one pack of gummies; two prewrapped rolls, Chem Scout and Cali Chem; a gram of Blue Crush; and a gram of Szittlez. (Customers can purchase up to an ounce, which equals 28.3 grams.) The checker packaged the purchase in a champagne-colored, heavy-duty plastic pouch that fastened with a childproof lock. It came out to $77. (Taxes were 25 percent.)
By about 11 a.m., more patrons had made their way in. A middle-aged woman wearing purple shoes and a purple jogging jacket, a skinny young kid who must have had a fake ID, and a stocky man in sweatpants awaited their turn with the two female bud-tenders.
When I got home, I told my roommate that I had gone to buy weed and said it was like going to the DMV. She laughed, “Buying weed is not even fun anymore.”
No, Really, Where’s My Weed?
The new state law, which 57 percent of voters approved in November 2016 through Proposition 64, calls on each jurisdiction to adopt its own ordinance, so the rules surrounding recreational cannabis sales differ wildly from city to city and county to county across California. Even in just the microcosm of Santa Barbara County, lawmakers have vastly different ideas about how much cannabis should be grown and how it should be sold in their neighborhoods.
County and city officials started navigating this new frontier last year, holding numerous meetings on the topic. But staffers started scratching their heads even more vigorously in November, when state officials released a series of last-minute regulations. Jurisdictions statewide are still scrambling to comply.
“My personal opinion is that this is a huge clusterfuck and the state erred in its launch of the industry in the manner it has,” summed up Joe Garcia, president of the Lompoc Valley Cannabis Coalition.
Further complicating matters, cannabis cultivators, distributors, and purveyors previously operating under medical-marijuana laws now need new temporary state licenses. So far, 132 temporary cultivation licenses have been issued in Santa Barbara County, which translates to 30 acres countywide.
As one grower explained, “The market has been dead since January 1 for all reputable operators.” Ironically, more cannabis operators were in compliance on December 31 than were on January 1.
To shed light on this dim landscape, I’ve spoken to dozens of cannabis-industry players as well as politicians, bureaucrats, and attorneys, many of whom agreed only to talk off-the-record since cannabis remains a Schedule 1 drug under federal law, the same category as heroin. While there’s still a lot up in the air, here’s a brief rundown of what I learned about how the policies differ from Carpinteria to Lompoc to Santa Maria and everywhere in between.
City of Santa Barbara: For years, Santa Barbara cannabis smokers have ordered weed online. Weedmaps.com reveals Green Cuisine Delivery Santa Barbara, S.B. Alternative Healing, and Ocean Side Express as just a few of the 20 options.
It’s easy to do. For new patients, all it takes is a 10-minute Skype interview with a doctor. Within an hour, a guy who looks like an Uber driver arrives at your doorstep with a sealed bag of prewrapped rolls or plastic capsules of dried cannabis flowers. You hand him a wad of cash, and the delivery dude is on his way.
These services have existed in a gray area for quite some time, and as of January 1, they remain on the black market. Eventually, brick-and-mortar retail competition is expected to eradicate this market, if law enforcement doesn’t get there first. Don’t expect 20 options to remain on weedmaps.com for long.
Under the new law, these delivery services legally must be tethered to a retail shop. Optimistic operators hope to open retail shops in the city as soon as May. Others believe the first one will not open until 2019. After all, the city adopted an ordinance for retail medical marijuana eight years ago, but no dispensaries have existed for several years.
Canopy Club, Ryan Howe’s proposed Milpas Street medical-marijuana shop, has come the closest to opening. Last fall, it was just days away from opening after years of appeals from residents who argued the Eastside corridor was home to many K-12 schools and therefore unsuitable for pot dens. But then the City Attorney’s Office announced it had investigated a tip from a resident that Howe had improperly tried to bring on new owners without notifying City Hall.
At a hearing before Staff Hearing Officer Susan Reardon in December, Howe blamed the whole thing on his former attorney, Joe Allen. On January 19, Reardon announced her decision not to revoke the permit. The decision can be appealed to the Planning Commission.
Two other proposed medical-marijuana retail shops — one by Allen on upper State Street and the other by Ihab Ghannam on De la Vina Street — have endured years of appeals and public hearings. (Ghannam’s dispensary was approved last August, but Allen’s permit was revoked that same month.) That doesn’t exactly bode well for the five potential recreational retail shops that the S.B. City Council voted in November to allow. However, recreational shops will not be subject to the same appeals process, according to the city’s cannabis ordinance. While a public hearing must be held, residents can merely raise concerns, not continually appeal the permits.
County of Santa Barbara: One of the first Santa Barbara County cannabis cultivators to receive a temporary state license used to sell weed when he was 15 years old. Sixteen years later, he employs 60 people. He plans to expand his cannabis business every year.
Throughout the county, at least 400 acres of cannabis are already being grown, according to self-reports submitted to county government. These plants are under hoop houses in outdoor fields near Lompoc, indoor warehouses in Goleta, and, particularly, in greenhouses in the unincorporated area of Carpinteria Valley.
So where is it all going?
Santa Barbara County growers have sold much of their processed product to medical-marijuana dispensaries in Los Angeles. But temporary state licenses for those to remain open legally are stalled in L.A.’s own regulating quagmire. (L.A.’s “social equity program” aims to reverse past war-on-drugs wrongs committed against predominantly black and Latino people by putting those with marijuana convictions first in line to receive cannabis-related permits. The program, however, has yet to kick off.)
A bigger hurdle, growers say, is that Santa Barbara County has yet to issue distribution licenses that would allow cannabis to be transported from farms to retail shops. Last year this snafu emerged in Nevada. State regulators declared a state of emergency. Without distribution licenses, there was no way for the cannabis to legally get to retailers.
The same setback has unfolded here. Santa Barbara growers say they used to distribute their own product. But under the new law, they need a distribution permit. And according to one grower, the only existing licensed distributors are seeking up to 45 percent in fees. “I’m not willing to pay that,” he said.
During this legal limbo, he is worried his own distributors who do not have permits will be stopped by law enforcement and subject to arrest. He hasn’t made a single sale since the first of the year. He is afraid to operate outside the law because that could jeopardize his ability to get future licenses.
City of Goleta: Goleta is home to three medical-marijuana dispensaries that were grandfathered in when the Goleta City Council adopted a ban in 2009. These nonprofit collectives have received letters of authorization from the City of Goleta to apply for temporary state licenses, said Winnie Cai, deputy city attorney.
The future of recreational cannabis businesses, though, is unclear. There are many warehouses in Goleta that could be converted to space for manufacturing, the process by which psychoactive elements are extracted from cannabis leaves. City staff has held multiple hours-long workshops, and the Goleta City Council will address the regulatory issues at a meeting next month. Cannabis advocate Crystal Reyes said she believes the Goleta City Council will not adopt an ordinance allowing recreational growing, manufacturing, and retail sales within the city limits. But some city councilmembers have indicated they would support retail cannabis sales.
City of Lompoc: Lompoc can again be proclaimed “The City of Flowers.” Cannabis operators cheered when the Lompoc City Council voted 4-1 to allow a number of retail shops and cannabis operations in the city limits. Real estate prices of abandoned storefronts and warehouses soared; realtors’ phones were ringing off the hook. “There certainly was a buzz,” said Garcia, president of the Lompoc Valley Cannabis Coalition.
The cheering came to a halt last month, when a citizens’ group started gathering signatures to repeal the cannabis ordinance. But the group, led by attorney James Hall, came up 226 signatures short of collecting the 1,626 required. Hall did not return requests for comment about any potential future plans.
The cannabis ordinance, therefore, is now effective, and city staff will soon begin accepting applications. Garcia remarked, “A culture that has remained underground for decades now has the opportunity to rise from the ashes of prohibition.”
Carpinteria Valley: What was once a thriving cut-flower industry has become the county’s heart of cannabis cultivation. The birth has set off alarms throughout the community, from high school teachers to land-use activists. Further complicating this dynamic is the fact that virtually all of the cannabis is grown beyond the Carpinteria city limits and is therefore outside the control of the Carpinteria City Council.
Old, dilapidated greenhouses have become prime real estate. The largest are 150,000 square feet. Men in suits have been sitting at coffee shops in the rustic beach town. Neighbors have grown wary. In the last year, strong, skunky odors have permeated the town. Teachers at Carpinteria High School said they had to arrive to work early to air out their classrooms. Visiting sports teams reportedly laughed at the area’s new signature crop. Realtors, bankers, accountants, and school officials declined to talk publicly. But privately, everyone was talking about it.
Members of the Carpinteria Valley Association, namely Anna Carrillo, launched a campaign to strengthen regulations to oversee odor and light nuisances. Some of the group had fought the proliferation of greenhouses 15 years ago when Santa Barbara County drafted a community plan. Using the social media website Nextdoor, these activists spread the word about logging complaints with the county’s planning department. County staff got to know them well. Complaints rose considerably about a year ago but more recently have flatlined.
Some growers laughed them off. Growing broccoli and garlic smells worse than cannabis, they charged, adding that in the last century, crops have changed. “Now the time has come for cannabis,” declared Wilja Happé, a Dutch grower in Carpinteria, to the county supervisors early last year.
In recent weeks, though, many cannabis growers sought to do something to reduce the stench. Fifteen growers installed sophisticated devices — called the Waterless Vapor-Phase System — that dispense essential oils, surfactants, and reverse-osmosis water to alter the chemical makeup of the problem odor molecule.
Marc Byers of Byers Scientific, which is based in Indiana and developed the system, explained the apparatus is common on landfills. It looks like an air-conditioning unit that connects to six-inch piping that circles the exterior of the greenhouse. The device costs about $50,000, plus about $50,000 to replace the fluid every year.
On a tour of one greenhouse, stocked with thousands of plants at different stages of life, the scent of fresh cannabis flowers was noticeably less pronounced than it was a few months ago. The growers claim their neighbors have noticed the difference. One school official indicated the stench was reduced by about 30 percent.
But many neighbors are not sold. Some described the new smell to be “sickly sweet.” Byers claimed the device produces an odorless scent. If it is turned on too high, dispensing too much liquid product, it could smell like a Laundromat. Carrillo raised the issue of the fluids getting into the groundwater or aquifers.
County Supervisor Das Williams finds himself squarely in the middle. Last month, Williams invited growers and neighbors to his living room to have a frank discussion about the skunky smells. The debate does not appear to be simmering down anytime soon.
The Carpinteria City Council, meanwhile, has all but threatened to sue the county over its proposed cannabis regulations. It’s worth noting that Carpinteria city councilmembers had privately expressed interest in allowing manufacturing in the city limits so they could collect the tax revenue. But they don’t want cannabis to be grown throughout the valley, where they have no control.
Santa Maria: The Santa Maria City Council said no to all cannabis.
What Happens to Medical Weed?
Four decades ago, Dr. David Bearman of Goleta began to advocate for the medicinal benefits of cannabis. He explained he has always tried to use the word “cannabis” when referring to the plant. He once lazily called cannabis “marijuana” in front of an African-American nurse, he recalled. She told him, “Calling cannabis ‘marijuana’ is like calling a black person a ‘n*.’” “I was taken aback and briefly speechless,” he said. “Then the more that I thought about it, the more I realized that she was correct.”
Now, Bearman, who just 15 years ago was attacked by the state medical board for prescribing cannabis, is worried medical marijuana could be ignored and “thrown under the bus.”
In Washington State, for instance, he said that doctors are required to write down patients’ diagnoses, which he argued was a violation of privacy laws. “What they are doing there is regulating confidentiality,” he said, adding that “they cannot regulate the practice of medicine.”
He expressed some faith that that would not happen in California. He said the authors of Prop. 64 assured him medical marijuana would not be affected. Most of the tax revenue would go to law enforcement and research, he added.
A medical-marijuana dispensary operator in this region added it is hard to predict exactly what will happen to medical marijuana. The state regulations combine medicinal and adult use into the same program. Patients can, however, apply for state-sponsored Medical Marijuana Identification Cards through the California Public Health Department to become exempt from taxes that adult-use users have to pay.
What About the Feds, Man?
Locally, cannabis is defying blue-red politics. Supervisor Steve Lavagnino, a Republican, and Supervisor Williams, a Democrat, have gotten along so well while working on Santa Barbara County’s cannabis ordinance that they are commonly referred to as “The Doobie Brothers” during public hearings.
While some California conservatives have voiced skepticism about the drug’s impact on society, many have embraced a laissez-faire attitude: Let people have their pot. Plus, many Santa Barbara County Republican leaders see cannabis tax revenue as a boon for local economies — particularly, they add, as the state becomes increasingly hostile to drilling more oil and gas. The cannabis market is expected to bring in $1 billion in state tax revenue in the first year.
But the Donald Trump administration has not budged. Recreational-cannabis advocates’ momentum was deflated four days into 2018, when Attorney General Jeff Sessions reversed the Obama-era Cole memo, which instructed federal prosecutors not to prioritize marijuana cases. “Given the department’s well-established general principles, previous nationwide guidance specific to marijuana enforcement is unnecessary …,” he wrote.
While the action was a clear negative gesture to California, many cannabis growers in Santa Barbara did not express much agitation, nor were they surprised by Sessions’s actions. Many say they are not afraid that Drug Enforcement Administration agents are going to raid pot shops as they did in Santa Barbara nearly a decade ago.
When Prohibition was repealed in 1933, “local option” rules allowed cities and states to continue to ban alcohol. It was not until 1966 that all states permitted the sale of alcohol. Even now, dry counties exist in states such as Arkansas, Florida, and Alabama. Cannabis prohibition appears to be following the same path. It could be decades before cannabis is legal throughout California and the United States. “Local option” rules will create a hodgepodge of rules, restrictions, and outright bans.
So for people in Santa Barbara looking to get high, purchasing recreational cannabis — legally — will still require a two-hour drive. Bring your buds.