County Board of Supervisors play catch-up on cannabis regulations
BY BRENNA SWANSTON
Regulations are underway for cultivating marijuana for commercial recreational use in Santa Barbara County, following a few actions by the county Board of Supervisors at its Feb. 14 meeting.
The supervisors voted to create an ad hoc subcommittee to help develop cultivation regulations, direct staff to bring back plans for a cannabis grower registry, and in the meantime ban all recreational marijuana operations in the county. Each action passed with a 4-1 vote.
Supervisors Das Williams and Steve Lavagnino will head the ad hoc committee. Lavagnino, who represents the 5th District, said he was excited to do the job.
“I think it’s an opportunity,” Lavagnino told the Sun. “This is an industry that’s starting from scratch. I think we have one chance to get this right.”
While the county’s recreational weed ban is slated to expire in 22 months, the supervisors are realistically racing a tighter deadline, since California’s government plans to start issuing state licenses to cannabis growers starting in January 2018.
“If we sit around twiddling our thumbs, the industry’s going to start unregulated and untaxed,” Lavagnino said. “It’s hard to move government quickly, but we’re trying to lay out an aggressive schedule.”
He said the ad hoc committee will meet with county representatives next week, and hopefully within two to three weeks the committee will begin public meetings.
“This isn’t something I set out on when I got elected, to legalize marijuana,” Lavagnino said. “I think Supervisor [Peter] Adam hit the nail on the head when he said that it’s like a big experiment right now. We might look back on this 10 years from now and say this was a big mistake. My job isn’t to be the moral police for the people of Santa Barbara County. I’m supposed to implement their vision.”
According to the 2016 election results, the county constituents’ vision is to roll with the weed industry. County voters approved Proposition 64, which legalized recreational marijuana, by 62 percent—5 percentage points higher than the statewide election results.
Das Williams, 1st District supervisor, said at the Feb. 14 meeting that he hopes the legalization of recreational cannabis will lead to a decrease in violence by taking the substance off the black market.
“As a kid growing up in this community, it was easier to buy marijuana at 15 than it was to buy alcohol or frankly to buy most products that are legal,” Williams said at the meeting. “This is to me an outgrowth of the black market and the market share of the black market. The black market of marijuana causes a lot of human pain.”
A legal, well-regulated marijuana market working independently of the drug cartels would have a public safety benefit in Santa Barbara County, he said. Plus, hundreds of marijuana grows already exist in our county and are operating unregulated.
Williams told the Sun that he estimates there are between 339 and 1,000 marijuana grows in Santa Barbara County. The lower number came from a California Department of Food and Agriculture survey, and the higher came from Williams’ estimate that about a third of those surveyed told the truth.
Of the 339 known cannabis growers in the county, law enforcement personnel have only had contact with 24, he said.
“Right now, they only respond on a complaint-driven basis,” Williams said. “There is no proactive enforcement because the county doesn’t have the money to pay for teams of people to go out and proactively enforce.”
If and when the county does implement regulations allowing for commercial weed cultivation, Williams said he’d like to create a permit system that would charge growers and fund proactive law enforcement.
“Right now, the general taxpayer pays for that,” he said. “It should be the marijuana growers that pay for the system of dealing with marijuana, not taxpayers in general.”
Williams said his other priorities for the ad hoc committee would be to require background checks for all weed farm employees, saying “we should not have any felons working in this business”; implementing a plan for public safety and to prevent the industry from “being a nuisance to the surrounding area”; and expectations regarding environmental impacts.
Elizabeth Davis, spokesperson for the county’s Cannabis Business Council, said she hopes the council can act as a resource for the supervisors as they work out the specifics for those regulations.
“We want to be helpful,” Davis told the Sun. “We also want to ensure the regulations that come out are fair to cannabis business owners. This industry is often erroneously seen as kind of a cash cow, for lack of a better term, and we have to make sure that the taxation that’s levied and the regulations that are levied still allow it to flourish.”
She declined to speak to the specifics of employee background checks and permit fees, but said the council’s membership—which now exceeds 50 current and prospective marijuana cultivators—acknowledge the need for new enforcement actions.
“We want to be good actors within that, but definitely want to strike that balance between what’s needed and what’s feasible as businesses,” Davis said. “The businesses themselves are legal and want to grow and develop like any business would.”
Supervisor Janet Wolf, who represents the 2nd District, was the only dissenting voter when it came to creating an ad hoc committee and directing staff to create a registry for prospective growers.
She said she thought the ad hoc committee was inappropriate because “time is of the essence,” and it would work better for the board as a whole to hold hearings, discuss recommendations for an ordinance, and direct county staff as needed.
“I’ve been on ad hoc committees, and I know that lots of times they’re not effective or efficient,” Wolf told the Sun. “I just thought for efficiency and transparency, it’s better not to have an ad hoc committee. It’s something that the Board of Supervisors can definitely handle.”
As for the registry, Wolf said she voted against it because she wanted assurance of a temporary ban on recreational commercial weed first—but that ban was the last item to pass.
In fact, Wolf said she’d prefer to have a permanent, total ban on marijuana in Santa Barbara County.
“I would love a total ban,” she said. “But the train has left the station. This is what the voters have voted for. If we’re going to have cultivation, then we need to regulate it.”
Staff Writer Brenna Swanston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.