Caitlin Fitch

With Santa Barbara County now in the midst of its first legalized cannabis harvest, the number of enforcement actions against illegal growing operations continues to mount and litigation has challenged the fairness of the lengthy process by which the City of Santa Barbara selected its three retail operators. That legal challenge was filed by the Arizona-based SGSB, who scored the second highest number of points in the city’s application competition held early this year, but was excluded from consideration because its proposed site on the 900 block of State Street was located within 1,000 feet of the top-ranked applicant Coastal Partners.

The lawsuit named both the City of Santa Barbara and Coastal Partners, accusing the latter of lying in its written application to City Hall. SGSB claimed Coastal Partners falsified real estate documents to make it appear they owned a property on the 1000 block of Chapala Street when in fact it was only in escrow. In past interviews, city officials have confirmed that was the case, but stated the deadline for all finalists had been extended a month; by that time, they stated, the property proposed by Coastal had, in fact, cleared escrow.

SGSB also claimed that the 1,000-foot distance between dispensaries was arbitrary, capricious, and legally indefensible. SGSB principals had no idea at the time they submitted their proposal where other prospective dispensaries might be located. Cannabis consumers and city residents will suffer, the lawsuit argued, because a less qualified provider would be allowed to operate. During the first phase of evaluations, SGSB posted the highest scores. In the second wave, it was edged out by Coastal by three points out of a possible total of 1,000. Calls to the City Attorney’s office and to Coastal for comment were not returned by deadline.

Given the high stakes involved — estimated millions in annual revenues per dispensary — such conflict is not surprising. The lawsuit was filed after earlier efforts by SGSB to get a reconsideration had been rebuffed by City Administrator Paul Casey, whose word on such matters has been decreed the last. To date, none of the three chosen dispensaries selected early this summer have opened for business. The soonest that’s expected will be early next year.

Countywide, eradication efforts targeting illegal cannabis grows have picked up steam, with teams of officers lead by the Sheriff’s Office now having hit eight locations in the past four weeks. To date, 17,113 plants have been chopped down and buried. The work is hard and time consuming, stated Lt. Brian Olmstead, involving machetes, chainsaws, and backhoes. That number does not count the 101,752 plants found growing illegally in Los Padres National Forest throughout the summer.

The most recent raid took place in Cebada Canyon, located outside Lompoc and reputedly a hot bed of cultivation both legal and otherwise. This week’s action destroyed 1,432 plants; many more had recently been harvested. Olmstead said the growers had obtained temporary state permits, but those expired at the end of August. In addition, he said, the amount of cannabis under cultivation greatly exceeded what the permits allowed.

“They were permitted for one hoop house’s worth,” said Olmstead. ”There were 12 hoop houses.” Olmstead said his investigators had communicated with the landowner, which he added is not always easy to determine. In many instances, he said, the land in question is owned by limited partnerships, which in turn, lease it to other limited partnerships. Knowing who is actually calling the shots has proven more challenging and time consuming than anticipated, he added. To date, there have been raids in Cuyama, Santa Ynez, Lompoc, and Tepesquet Canyon. Some operations in Carpinteria are under scrutiny. To date no arrests have been made, no charges filed. Cultivation is not a violent crime, Olmstead noted, and once plants have been uprooted, the crime is over.

Santa Barbara County has 96 licensed growers, making it the most heavily permitted county in the state for recreational cultivation. If all permits were cultivated to their maximum potential, Santa Barbara would have 338 acres of weed getting ready for fall harvest. Dennis Bozanich, the county’s de facto cannabis czar, said he believes 244 acres are currently under cultivation. The bigger grows, he said, typically need 20-30 workers during harvest time. About one third of the county’s permitted grows, he said, qualify as bigger operations.

Since October 1, county tax collectors have been accepting payments from growers. The deadline was this week. Private security guards were hired for the occasion. Next Monday, the county supervisors will be holding a special session to discuss nothing but the county’s nascent cannabis industry. That meeting starts at 9 am.


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