Mutually Assured Destruction in Santa Barbara’s Cannabis Wars

Can Hemp Create an Unlikely Peace Among Feuding Factions?


When it comes to the cannabis war now escalating throughout Santa Barbara County, I got no dog in the fight. Too often, however ​— ​and increasingly ​— ​it feels decidedly otherwise. I have friends on both sides of the divide, people with whom I have long broken bread. Some are now threatening to never speak to me again. From other participants, I have received not-so-subtle intimations of great bodily harm. One managed to get me looking over my shoulder. As for all the rest, I only had to duck their flying spit. 

Weed is famous for inducing fits of silly giggles among those who partake. But the first casualty in this escalating war of words is a sense of humor. Both sides have assembled their armies of attorneys, lobbyists, spin doctors, and backroom campaign donors. But before we go down that Game of Thrones rabbit hole, let’s ponder a new endgame wrinkle that I stole from Dr. Strangelove and the good old days of the Cold War. It’s called mutually assured destruction ​— ​MAD for short. 

The United States and the former Evil Empire known as the USSR managed to coexist for the better part of 40 years because each side knew the other had a button they could push to make the skies rain bombs and the oceans boil. The great irony is that in my MAD man logic, hemp ​— ​cannabis’s low-THC, near-beer, low-rent, genetic kissing cousin ​— ​will function as the analog to The Bomb.

The federal government has just legalized hemp, which just happens to smell and look exactly like cannabis, which the feds still classify as a drug akin to heroin. Although you can’t get high from hemp, you can still harvest its CBDs. And CBDs, as we are constantly hearing, cure absolutely everything: cancer, schizophrenia, flat feet, fallen arches, itchy scalp, bunions, bad breath, insomnia, arthritis, inappropriate jokes, drooling, and erectile dysfunction. 

Initially, the cannabis crowd saw hemp as its ultimate nuclear option with which to threaten wine-tasting-room operators, grape growers, “ranchette vigilantes,” and any other outspoken malcontents complaining about the mephitic odors emanating from the new cannabis plantations sprouting up around the county. Unlike cannabis, hemp is legally recognized as a bona fide agricultural product and thus protected from most government regulation by “Right to Farm” laws. In other words, hemp ​— ​unlike cannabis ​— ​can be planted lot line to lot line with no odor control and no expensive land-use permits. True, it’s not nearly as lucrative as cannabis, but it’s nowhere near as much hassle and is a lot cheaper to grow. I have heard more than one pro-cannabis operator ​— ​exasperated by the opposition ​— ​talk wistfully about carpet-bombing the county with hemp.

It’s a legit threat.

But it cuts both ways ​— ​hence its sublime utility as an agent for a Mutually Assured Destruction scenario.

Hemp, it turns out, can and does wreak havoc on cannabis plants. In fact, in some regions, commercial hemp and cannabis fields must be separated by at least 20 miles from one another. Otherwise, it turns out, the quality of the all-important cannabis flower, from which all value derives, is destroyed. Simplified to its base essentials, cannabis cultivation is nothing more ​— ​or less ​— ​than the strategically engineered sexual frustration of female cannabis plants. In nature, female plants put out sticky resins in hopes of catching the male pollen floating aimlessly in some passing breeze. But in the greenhouses and hoop houses, consummation of the act of love is strictly verboten. The more frustrated the female plants become, the more resins they toss off. The tackier and stickier the bud, the greater its psychoactive payload, and, obviously, the more lucrative its payoff. In this scenario, the presence of male plants constitutes a certified buzzkill. Male hemp plants, it turns out, are just as lethal.

Given the recent legality of hemp, there’s nothing to stop wine growers from planting a few decorative acres close to the fields of their cannabis-growing neighbors. In the context of nuke speak, that would constitute a unilateral, retaliatory preemptive first strike. It might get the attention of certain cannabis growers who are perhaps otherwise distracted, understandably, by plummeting cannabis prices and the lack of essential retail outlets, rather than being the most considerate neighbor possible.  

The cannabis lobby just launched a legislative Hail Mary up in Sacramento that would require local governments to approve retail cannabis outlets whether they wanted to or not. The first version of the bill would require cities and counties to allow one cannabis shop for every four liquor outlets. When that went nowhere, the bill was amended to require one for every six liquor stories or every 15,000 residents. This deserves to die a swift and speedy death. When voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition 64, legalizing recreational weed, they did so with the explicit understanding that it would be left to local governments to opt in or opt out. It turns out 388 of California’s 540 cities and counties opted out.

Santa Barbara County, for the record, has yet to accept applications for hemp cultivation. But it’s only a matter of months, and applicants are already lining up. In Ventura County, hemp has been cultivated for several years. To the extent it’s regulated at all, it’s to ensure growers aren’t cultivating cannabis but calling it hemp. Ventura’s ag czar recently speculated that the threat of “pollination pollution” is growing and that, eventually, will have to be adjudicated. 

But in the meantime, we’d all do well to remember that what’s good for the goose is also good for the gander. That sounds sensible enough except for one thing. I have no idea what a “gander” is.


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