Santa Barbara City Councilmember Randy Rowse objected again last Tuesday to the city’s plans to regulate recreational cannabis sales. Rowse complained that the City Council had voted two weeks ago to allow five recreational pot shops, among other things, and urged his colleagues to reconsider their decision. They didn’t budge. Rowse and Councilmember Jason Dominguez, who has expressed concern about multiple cannabis shops in his Eastside district where a medical marijuana dispensary is about to open on Milpas Street, were the only two opposed.
Rowse, who owns Paradise Café, sat down with the Santa Barbara Independent just before the council meeting Tuesday to talk pot.
Let’s start by having you explain your general position about the city’s proposed cannabis regulations.
Marijuana has obviously been normalized in this state since the ‘90s. If adults want to use marijuana, that’s fine; that’s their decision. One of my main things is, of course, to protect the town and the neighbors from things that they think may be negative influences, specifically for children who shouldn’t be exposed to any kinds of intoxicants before they are, like, 25 just in terms of their brain development.
Now clearly there is alcohol; there are cigarettes; there are opioids and what not. Why is this all of a sudden a good idea, too? Why are we doubling down?
This particular movement right now has zero to do with personal freedoms. It has nothing to do with some kind of liberation of the human soul. It’s all about money. It’s retail. This is all about that people in elected offices are salivating over potential tax windfalls. And there are potential tax windfalls, but in Colorado it’s less than a tenth of one percent of their general budget. It’s not making or breaking Colorado. And they are having extraordinary enforcement expenses that are going along in certain areas.
What is your biggest concern?
My biggest concern is about the sanctity of the neighborhood — whether you are talking about vacation rentals or pot stores. When you move into a neighborhood, you have a certain expectation of conditions, of the way things are. And when those conditions are affected by something external, like a pot store, like a vacation rental, I think that’s a concern that I am responsible for.
In terms of the schools and the kids, we talk a lot about recovery, addiction. We are pretty bad about prevention, aside from saying, “It’s bad. Don’t do it.” Educating kids about what goes on with their brain, it’s [something we should do because marijuana] does cause truncated development. We’ve normalized alcohol, and alcohol is a real problem in our society, so why are we doubling down? Why is running with garden shears less dangerous than running with scissors?
Speaking of alcohol, you own a successful restaurant and bar, Paradise Café. When your critics bring that up, how do you address that?
In my world, number one, I am a restaurant, and bar and alcohol sales are about 9 percent of my total sales. We are also very careful about who gets how much. We don’t over-serve or say come in and drink a whole bunch of this. That doesn’t mean that’s not a danger. I’ve seen it in people. But the idea that people are going to come in to drink $15 cocktails and turn into an alcoholic is a little remote. But those criticisms are fair.
I was told, if we are going to legalize [cannabis], we should model it after the alcohol controls, and I totally agree. I sit on this board called Fighting Back Santa Barbara. I’ve seen the devastation over the years. It’s a weird thing for me. I’m almost more of a pharmacist than a businessman. Businessmen sell as much of a product as they can. You don’t do that with alcohol. I’m not going to sell you as much as you want.
I don’t know how hypocritical it is, but I do know that I am informed about it. I am certainly not Carrie Nation. I am not telling people they cannot have their pot. Have your pot; just keep it to yourself.
How do you distinguish yourself from your colleagues?
I think there is a slightly different belief system. I think my colleagues are a little bit charmed by the money idea, which is true in a lot of agencies, especially in the Inland Empire. They are just going crazy. In Colorado, the price of retail pot has crashed. It really has gotten low. The bloom will come off the rose. That’s a bad pun in this whole thing. This is not going to destroy Santa Barbara. I just don’t think it helps. I don’t think it helps our State Street profile.
You were at the conference where Colorado public health expert Dr. Larry Wolk spoke. What did you take away?
Both doctors who spoke said the data is short in terms of making conclusive statements about marijuana. They didn’t find marijuana had greater harm on the body than alcohol. Basically the common sense one was if you are pregnant, you shouldn’t be around marijuana first-hand or second-hand. If you are a child, you shouldn’t be exposed to marijuana, particularly edibles. The dosages and potencies are variable. They are 10-fold what they used to be.
I was at UCSB in the early ‘70s. I’ve seen it before, but it wasn’t what they have today. They didn’t talk about this as much. What I took away was they didn’t push anyone’s panic button. But I know from what we deal with in dealing with our transients on State Street is that a lot of people really affected by drug use are addicted, whether it’s alcohol or whatever. Particularly with young people in the poorer sectors of the community, marijuana is pervasive, it’s strong. It can contribute to adult onset psychosis as any substance can.
What specifically did you learn when the city allowed medical marijuana dispensaries, and how can you apply that to this time around?
Well, last time there were some bad actors involved in the medical marijuana dispensaries. People who had been nightclub owners all of a sudden became healers. We knew medical was a ruse to start with. It was declared a ruse by the authors of [Proposition] 215. While there are some people who get palliative relief from this — MS or Parkinson sufferers — for the most part, you don’t know anyone who wouldn’t qualify for medical marijuana. Everybody has something. I am susceptible to gravity, okay?
There was a rush, and there is a rush once again to do this. There is already a robust delivery system in town. Nobody is in jail because they were smoking a reefer in the park.
I would not want to see a proliferation of more liquor stores or Spearmint Rhinos because those are not good neighbors. The marijuana thing will be supplied. I just don’t want it everywhere. I would just as soon a fulfillment center where you just have a delivery clearinghouse and everybody orders their pot this way [holds up iPhone].
Weedmaps.com shows there are dozens of delivery options in the area. Proponents of an ordinance say money from regulating the recreational marijuana industry will allow the city to crack down on some bad actors in the industry. Do you disagree?
On some level. One has to remember the underground market in Colorado and Washington is alive and well. It is just functioning with some impunity. We still have a black market of tobacco all over the world, and those are big businesses. I think the regulation will help somewhat.
Going back to selling liquor, as I do, in a bar. Number one I never see cash anymore. I wish I did. They only see cash. When you put a dispensary, you are saying to the world there is not only product in here but there is a bunch of cash, so you could talk about it all you want, but someone with evil intent is going to say, there is a target. That is a risk. Now, is that risk blooming into reality everywhere? Probably not. But I don’t want it next to my house. I don’t want it next to my business. I don’t want to sit there and say, “Oh yeah, they were making hash oil, and they set the building on fire,” which has happened a few times. Those are all illegal but will the illegal grows still be in the hills. Will people still be making honey oil in their apartment? Yeah, they will. That’s just the way things are going to be.
So you don’t think it’ll help in terms of eradicating the black market?
I don’t think so at all. Like I said, in these other places, it has brought the price down. We are taxing it at a 20 percent voter-approved. With all the taxes, that’s still less than alcohol and cigarettes.
What are your thoughts on Anthony Wagner, administrative assistant to the police chief, being so heavily involved in drafting the ordinance?
One reason [Wagner was hired is because] we no longer have an Alcohol Beverage Control office in this town. That’s in Ventura. That’s been needed. The chief worked with him down in San Diego. He was also the CEO of the grower’s coalition down there. He said he did it because it was a job and a paycheck. I buy that. He was on the Planning Commission. It’s a little bit weird because he is so well informed so some people think he’s an advocate. I’ve found in working with him that he hit the ball pretty straight as far as I’m concerned. I know there is hyperbole on both sides of the argument. I think it’s good to have that much expertise. We would have hired some kind of consultant otherwise.
When do you think the first pot shop in the City of Santa Barbara will open?
Gosh, I don’t know. I wasn’t salivating quite as much as my colleagues were about that premise. Sometime this spring probably.
You mean doors open?
I don’t know. We’re trying to be pretty friendly to these [businesses]. I think there is also going to be a giddy start to this. Pot guys are telling me five is too many, they are not going to sustain that many in this town. Anthony was the one who mentioned fulfillment center. The fulfillment center takes away all the issues with the dispensaries. Bingo. Well, no one was particularly interested in hearing that argument.
Last thing is the taxes. Voters passed a 20 percent tax, but the City Council appears poised to lower the rate. What will you advocate for?
I would advocate for the full banana. The reason I am is because when we shut down the dispensaries last time, we ended up with hundreds of thousands of dollars in expense, and we didn’t have a robust auditing plan back then. We have a more robust one now, and it’s going to take money to do it. So what I’m saying is, let’s find out what our costs are going to be first. It is going to take law enforcement and city staff time, and we are already stretched pretty thin.
Isn’t 20 percent a lot for a business?
Yes, but once again I’m probably [taxed] 54 percent or something on alcohol, when you get right down to it, when you pay for when you get that beverage. Built into that is all of the insular expenses. So, yes, 20 percent is a lot. No question about it. The market will tell us what the final price is.