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Reefer Madness

Countywide, Residents, Vintners, Avocado Growers Unite to Fight a Cannabis Coup

It took awhile, then it hit me. I was walking down Carpinteria’s Cravens Lane, a k a Cannabis Row, past the tall green-draped chain-link fences, the acrid skunk stench, the surveillance cameras, and the don’t-mess-with-us signs. Around the corner on Foothill, I had seen an avocado orchard mowed down in two hours, verdant green acreage transformed into a moonscape, now home to Cresco, the billion-dollar cannabis player. Then it hit me.

If you worked in Miami in ’80s, like I did, you could feel it in the air, at the beach, at the malls, at the law offices stacked vertically on Brickell Avenue. A white blanket had settled over South Florida, corrupting even the sidewalks. “In Miami you could refuse to take drugs. But whatever you did, drugs would be part of your life,” wrote T.D. Allman in his opus, Miami. “It’s on the table when you settle up your bridge scores; it’s in the collection plate when you go to church … and the money in every purse, however coarse or dainty, is smeared with cocaine dust.”

Welcome to the new Santa Barbara — soon to be the Cannabis Capital of the Universe! — if the reigning Board of Supervisors have their way.

Ka-ching! Ka-ching! (Well, at least for them.)

Maybe you’re wondering how a Cannabis Coup came to be in Santa Barbara County — which hands out cannabis licenses like Halloween candy and now accounts for about one-third of all temporary licenses in the state and two-thirds of all provisional licenses, soon to be the largest cannabis market in the state.

Gender and optics aren’t everything, but take a look. There are more than 130 women in Congress, but the current Board of Supervisors who rule our county, are four middle-aged, white guys and one woman, Joan Hartmann. Before her retirement, Janet Wolf was our Cannabis Cassandra, ceaselessly warning that the Ordinance, written for all intents and purposes by the cannabis industry by sidestepping all normal land-use practices — spelled Big Trouble. But the ordinance, was fiercely championed by supervisors Das Williams and Steve Lavagnino, our very own Doobie Brothers. Same deal over at the Planning Commission, where just one woman, Cecilia Brown, like Joan Hartmann, tries to hold the line against full-on Reefer Madness.

Never mind, that S.B. voters never asked or voted for it. Yes, of course, we backed legalization of marijuana! —but we didn’t vote to live in Humboldt County. (Did I mention the  Sups have issued almost triple the cannabis licenses of Humboldt, the former reigning pot capital, plagued by homelessness and crime?)

If you’re as confused as me as to why Santa Barbara — home to thriving wine, avocado, and tourism industries and high property values, all directly threatened by the Sups’ unilateral decision — is about to become Cannabis Central (with its own Cannabis Czar), here’s what the experts tell us are the Five Biggest Fibs we’ve been spoon fed:

(1)  The county can’t do anything to rein in violators unless they first hand them a cannabis permit — which makes as much sense as saying the cops can’t arrest the bank robbers until after they make their escape. Even before the cannabis ordinance was finalized, the Sups were handing out “authorization letters” enabling growers to obtain “temporary licenses,” then refused to set any caps. The decades-long S.B. tradition of deliberative county planning was kicked to the curb, replaced by industry demands and its mantra “let the market dictate” what’s good for us.

(2)  We’re all going to be rolling in marijuana dough to the tune of $25 mil a year … except, gee, it didn’t work out that way. The panga boats keep coming in from Mexico with cheap dope, illegal grows are everywhere, and Forbes tells us that a glut on the market keeps prices plunging. Oregon just threw out 80 percent of its cannabis crop. But trust us say supervisors Das Williams, Steve Lavagnino, and Gregg Hart (whose chief of staff, Mollie Culver, formerly headed up the Cannabis  Business Council), we’re all gonna get rich on weed.

(3)  Really, it’s just an odor problem. Actually, no. A lot of locals suddenly have respiratory ills from the air pollution they believe are caused by the VOCs [volatile organic compounds] that cannabis plants emit. At least one multi-million-dollar home facing a cannabis nursery has sat on the market for two years. Breaking news bulletin: We are a tourist economy and being associated with cannabis hardly burnishes one’s image.

(4)  We can fix that odor. Maybe? Maybe not? The EverBloom cannabis nursery, which faces the high school, installed a Byers odor system, but students and neighbors, like Paul Eckstrom say, “It still stinks!” Same over at Howard School and the Boys & Girls Clubs. “Smells real bad,” one mother told me the other day, holding her nose.

That’s why smart pot farmers says it’s dumb to grow cannabis near densely populated areas — like Santa Barbara, with its half-million population. As is, you can smell the stench on Santa Claus and Padaro lanes, home to our finest beaches and grandest residences. They also say cannabis grows best inland, as the ocean and sun create humidity which foments the odors, along with molds.

But Supervisor Das Williams dug in and insisted on gifting 186 acres of the 1st District’s priceless Coastal Zone to cannabis growers.

(5)  Really, it’s no different than the entry of the wine industry into the county. No. Cutting down foliage and replacing it with exquisite green vineyards is not the same as clear cutting land and installing football fields of 20-foot-tall white plastic hoops and greenhouses belching out cannabis by-products.

While pot today is 40 percent to 80 percent stronger than it was 10 years ago, warn the medics at Cottage Hospital who routinely treat overdoses, really it’s not a drug. It’s the cure for cancer — and all else — but it’s not a drug.

Shhh! The mega-million-dollar cannabis lobby brooks no dissent.

At a recent Planning Commission meeting, one cannabis grower likened complaints against the industry to anti-Semitism. Never mind that a healthy segment of the S.B. County Coalition for Responsible Cannabis (the umbrella organization of grass-roots groups of residents, vintners, avocado growers, and schools in the five districts) are Jews, some the children of Holocaust survivors.

You want a sliver of good news? Supervisor Pete Adam of the 4th District just called out the Ordinance as the mess it is and doubted whether cannabis could coexist with our existing ag industries — avocados, wine, etc. — without wreaking havoc on them. Adam then said, “The right to swing one’s fist ends where the other man’s nose begins,” fighting words attributed to Oliver Wendell Holmes. In other words, our right to breathe trumps your right to grow pot.

That makes two votes for sanity. Gregg Hart says he’s considering moderating his views (though former and current Sups offer an eyeroll but say they are “hoping”). Vintners, avocado growers, and residents say they’ll sue and are weighing recalls and ballot initiatives like the folks in San Gabriel Valley, San Bernardino, and Riverside counties. And rumor has it that the California Coastal Commission will be  taking another look.

Until then, remember what the Sups tell us — it’s not a drug — it’s no different than garlic or broccoli. Really.

Ann Louise Bardach is a journalist and author living in unincorporated Santa Barbara County.

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