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The Independent’s recent story “Santa Barbara County to Crack Down on Cannabis?” misses the mark with an anti-cannabis bias and disregard for facts that run contrary to the reporter’s desire to portray the upcoming Board of Supervisors hearing as some kind of war between bucolic grape growers and profiteering cannabis farmers.
To create drama and tension in her narrative, Melinda Burns amplified the propaganda of a neo-prohibitionist organization that has filed multiple lawsuits against the county. The story also overlooked the tremendous benefits that legal cannabis farming has brought to our county and the fact that a vast majority of Santa Barbarans support it. This is both irresponsible reporting and a discredit to the Independent’s reputation for accuracy and fairness.
When the Board of Supervisors tasked its Planning Commission with suggesting changes to the current cannabis ordinance, Board Chair Gregg Hart stressed that all suggested changes should be “evidence based,” meaning backed by science, research, and objective facts. What the Planning Commission returned with, however, is a bureaucratic process that only appeases a small but vocal group of cannabis naysayers rather than fulfilling the direction of the elected representatives of the people. The Planning Commission’s recommendation that Conditional Use Permits (CUPs) be required for all cannabis projects would throw the entire county development process into disarray while creating absolutely no benefits to the general public.
CUPs are required for development projects that may require special conditions, but this is unnecessary because legal cannabis is highly regulated and requires navigating an incredible maze of licensing and permitting requirements from numerous state and local agencies. The level of stringent oversight mandated by the current ordinance by way of annual inspections and compliance requirements make this the most highly regulated crop in the world. Santa Barbara County’s Cannabis Ordinance and associated environmental review runs hundreds of pages and covers all potential impacts, from lighting to odors to traffic.
Put simply, requiring a CUP creates an enormous burden of bureaucracy and red tape without providing the public with any meaningful benefit. What it would do, however, is drive many small cannabis farmers out of business by adding enormous costs and delays. It will also choke the entire county development pipeline for years to come because every single cannabis project would face a mandatory public hearing and review by the Planning Commission.
The County Planning Commission currently holds 24 hearings per year. There are more than 200 cannabis projects in the application queue currently. Do the math. Even if the Planning Commission did nothing else but hear two or three cannabis projects per meeting, which would be a breakneck pace, it would take four years to address the current applications. And that ignores all other development projects under the Planning Commission’s jurisdiction.
Let’s circle back to the Independent’s article for a minute. It focused on three key issues raised by the anti-cannabis opposition. First was odor. It’s important to note that odor is principally a South Coast issue in the Carpinteria Valley where cannabis is grown in greenhouses located in close proximity to residences. Of all the odor complaints received by the county last year, more than 95 percent were located in Carpinteria. Of the other 5 percent, most were related to illegal grows in other regions of the county or, in a few cases, small legal personal grows. None of them were related to legal, permitted outdoor growing on Ag II lands. Zero. The current cannabis ordinance already contains strict requirements for odor control in the Carpinteria area. And, based on the lack of complaints in the rest of the county, it’s an insignificant issue elsewhere.
Net gain for the public from requiring CUPs on all cannabis projects? Nothing.
The second issue the article highlights is the so-called “crop conflict” or “agricultural incompatibility.” That’s the code word for pesticide applicators violating state law by allowing their toxic chemicals to fall onto neighboring properties and crops. It’s also known among farmers as “overspray” or “pesticide drift.”
The article uses an example of a 2019 incident when Fiddlestix Winery employees oversprayed EPA-regulated agricultural chemicals onto a nearby cannabis farm, including onto a house where a family with three young kids were sleeping. The reporter neglected entirely to report that Santa Barbara County’s Agricultural Commissioner investigated the incident, found Fiddlestix negligent, and fined the company. This omission from the story is baffling since the reporter had a copy of the Ag Commissioners’ report. Why would she leave this important fact out of the story?
The third issue raised is the idea that cannabis terpenes (scent and flavor molecules) have a superpower that allows them to travel through air and insert themselves into wine grapes, thereby ruining them. This fantasy has been disproved through scientific studies and also fails the most basic ground-truth test. Cannabis has been grown adjacent to wine grapes for years in our county. If this were going to ruin wine, it would have already. Yet no local vintner can point to a single bottle of wine or a bin of grapes that was spoiled by proximity between vineyards and cannabis farms.
The county supervisors should be commended, not criticized, for their vision in adopting a responsible cannabis ordinance and their thoughtfulness in making small, incremental adjustments to it since. The benefits to our county from this new agricultural business are undeniable. The UCSB Economic Forecast counts 5,000 new jobs that have been created in the county from legal cannabis. To date, the cannabis tax has provided approximately $20 million to the county and is on track to total $9 million this fiscal year. Legal cannabis is one of the only growth industries and growing tax revenue streams our county has during this economic downturn. I’m confident that the supervisors see that the vast benefits to our county hugely offset and outweigh the inconvenience of tolerating some political opposition and, at times, personal attacks.
I’m also hopeful that in the future the Independent will hold to a more fair and objective standard in their coverage of cannabis issues.
Andrew Rice is a spokesperson for the North County Farmers Guild.