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Supes Put a Cap on Cannabis

Santa Barbara County Limits Acreage for Cannabis Cultivation and Changes Course Midstream on New Dispensaries

Cannabis growing and selling in Santa Barbara County continues to divide the community as supervisors enact new rules to try to catch up. | Credit: Paul Wellman

In Hollywood westerns, the cowboys are forever fighting with the farmers; in Santa Barbara County, such inter-agricultural feuding involves the new wave of bud-tending cannabis growers who find themselves pitted against avocado ranchers in the south and wine-grape viniculturalists to the north. In an attempt to keep a lid on such friction, the county supervisors voted to impose an after-the-fact cap on the total amount of acreage that can be planted with cannabis in Santa Barbara County. In addition, the new cap — imposed nearly two years after the supervisors crafted the county’s first cannabis ordinance — is designed to alleviate growing tensions over cannabis at the rural-urban interface, typically home to ranchettes and other expressions of suburban life.

The new cap is 1,575 acres countywide, but that does not include the 186-acre cap on greenhouse cultivation in the Carpinteria Valley, adopted in response to community unrest over the concentration of cultivation taking place on Highway 192 and the odors thus generated. These caps reflect pretty much the amount of cannabis in the development review pipeline as of July 9. Not all of that will make it to the finish line of the county’s approval process.

The take by longtime critics of the cannabis industry — and the supervisors’ open-armed response to it — was tepid. “Too little too late,” said Renee O’Neil, an outspoken and often theatrical anti-cannabis crusader from Tepusquet Canyon, who suggested the supervisors were finally providing the level of protection they should have “three years ago.” Several members of Concerned Carpinterians argued the supervisors need to impose a cap that limits how much cannabis can be cultivated per parcel, as other counties have done.

An Environmental Review Problem?

Just how much cannabis has imposed upon other crops and existing communities — in terms of odor, generator noise, nighttime lighting, air quality, and traffic — remains the subject of intense debate, but the supervisors agreed that something needs to be done to address the strife generated. Many of the thornier political knots — what kinds of setbacks and odor mitigations might be required — will be sent to the county’s Planning Commission to sort out. That process promises to be long and thorough, and its end product politically fraught. The Planning Commission has taken a decidedly more challenging approach toward cannabis cultivation than Board of Supervisors, and the commissioners have displayed an independent streak that’s caused some supervisors heartburn.

Two weeks ago, the commissioners spent five hours debating the appeal over a cannabis development project before punting the matter several months down the road. The commissioners made clear, however, their high level of discomfort with the one-size-fits-all programmatic environmental review report the county supervisors had approved for cannabis projects. The commissioners voted unanimously they did not feel that this environmental document provided them the level of information necessary to render sound decisions.

First District Supervisor Das Williams, who represents Carpinteria and will be facing a campaign challenge from Santa Barbara school boardmember Laura Capps over his handling of the cannabis issue, stressed that the county has done much to respond to community concerns about the proliferation of cultivation sites and attendant issues. He noted that 38 cultivation sites have been the subject of law enforcement raids; in fact, the most recent number — released after Williams’ comments — is 46. Williams noted as well that many of the temporary licenses issued by the state for cannabis grows in Santa Barbara have expired. At this time, he stated, there are only 56 provisional licenses held in Carpinteria. The county as a whole has about 800.

The Smell Test

Cannabis has pointedly brought many issues to the fore, but odor, clearly, is the most problematic. Steve Janes of the Santa Barbara Vintners Association complained intrusive cannabis odors threaten to imperil an industry he claimed generates $1.8 billion a year in revenues. Not only do odor-rich terpenes emanated by cannabis plants intrude on the tasting room experience, he charged, but the terpenes might alter the very taste of the grape produced. He cited studies from Australia showing that terpenes produced by eucalyptus leaves had that effect there. He said a preliminary study conducted in Santa Barbara indicated cannabis terpenes triggered a consumer rejection rate 200 percent higher than eucalyptus terpenes. He termed this problem “terpene drift.”

One representative from the cannabis industry disputed the scientific integrity of the eucalyptus study, suggesting that several other studies have since disproven such claims. John De Friel, one of the largest cannabis growers in the county and a member of the county’s Agricultural Advisory Committee, stated that in the interest of not just being “good farmers” but “great neighbors,” he and a North County trade association of cannabis growers will be shifting production to less-skunky-smelling strains of cannabis and ones more citrusy in aroma. De Friel explained that cannabis cultivation is most expansively aromatic during the period when plants are hung out to dry. He said that he is currently working on a different approach that will help minimize such odors. Instead of drying the plants, De Friel said he’s been freezing them immediately upon harvesting. Frozen plants give off few, if any, terpenes.

The supervisors also embraced a major change in how the eight commercial retail dispensaries slated for operation on unincorporated county land will be selected. Initially, the county had announced the retail operators would be selected via lottery. The merit-based approach adopted by the City of Santa Barbara — known dismissively as a “beauty pageant” — was seen as too much trouble. The dispensary lottery was supposed to have started this July. The deadline for applications was to have been August 16. And the final selection was supposed to have taken place September 3. The supervisors were surprised to learn in recent weeks, however, a sudden change to the approach. Instead, the county would select the eight lucky operators via a merit-based ranking system. This Tuesday, the supervisors voted 4 to 1 to ratify, after the fact, a decision that had already been made. Many supervisors, like Joan Hartmann, argued the competitive approach allowed county decision makers to push applicants to set aside additional funding for public-health outreach to pregnant mothers and teenage kids about the perils of cannabis consumption.

A Dispensary in Every District

Devon Wardlow, a public-affairs representative with Coastal Dispensary — which is about to open its Chapala Street retail operation in Santa Barbara next month — argued that the first-come, first-served approach tried by the City of Goleta was the worst selection process she’d witnessed. Goleta initially announced it would allow 15 dispensaries, a number it would later be revealed was snatched from thin air. Later, that number would be reduced to six, three of which would be reserved for the three medical dispensaries that currently exist in Goleta. Coastal complained that too many of the lottery slots had been occupied by out-of-town operations with no real experience in retail cannabis. Local operators, like Coastal, found themselves squeezed out of the competition. Supervisor Gregg Hart embraced the notion of a merit-based competition, arguing that applicants should be given points if their workers belong to a union like the United Food and Commercial Workers International. Supervisor Das Williams agreed.

Driving the change was an abiding concern that the lottery system might not guarantee that Isla Vista would wind up with a retail dispensary. Given Isla Vista’s large student population, a dispensary there would no doubt be a major moneymaker, not just for the operator, but for county government and the taxes it collected. Supervisors and county cannabis planners have been scratching their heads as to how the eight dispensaries should best be distributed among the five supervisorial districts. Special concern has been paid that there not be a bunching of dispensaries in any one location. Ultimately, the supervisors opted to locate at least one dispensary in each of the six communities for which a community plan has been crafted. That leaves two left over.

The change in selection regime will clearly delay the process by which operators are selected. This could delay the opening date, one speaker suggested, by as much as two years. That estimate, however, is by no means certain.

This leaves Santa Barbara County — home to one of the most aggressive cannabis cultivation industries in the state — with far more dispensaries on paper than on the ground. To date, Lompoc has the most legal dispensaries, followed by the City of Santa Barbara. One recreational storefront just opened this week in Santa Barbara, with another due to open next month. In addition, Santa Barbara has two medicinal dispensaries within city limits. The City of Goleta has three dispensaries, but medical cards are still required. (Grover Beach in San Luis Obispo County reportedly has a thriving cannabis scene as does Pt. Hueneme in Ventura County. In fact, five dispensaries in Pt. Hueneme passed the hat to raise the funds necessary for that town to celebrate the Fourth of July with fireworks this year. Pt. Hueneme dispensaries also bankroll a homeless shelter there.) Despite the lack of storefronts, Santa Barbara County has no shortage of black market delivery services to ensure that no one who wants has to do without.

Clarification: This story was revised to make clear that John De Friel is currently freeze drying cannabis plants, not planning to do so. Also, Goleta has a first-come, first-served storefront system, not a lottery, and Devon Wardlow is public affairs director for Coastal Dispensary, not government affairs. As for provisional licenses, 56 represents Carpinteria; the county contains about 800.

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