Santa Barbara grows a third of California’s pot, thanks to political loopholes

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Santa Barbara County only has 1.8% of California’s land, but it has 35% of the state’s pot cultivation licenses.

That might be good news for county jobs and revenue. But it has negatively affected avocado and wine industries, which are more traditionally associated with the coastal county. And there’s an uptick in resident complaints about the smell of cannabis. 

The meteoric rise of cannabis is thanks to a close relationship between the industry, its lobbyists, and local political leaders.

A scathing grand jury report that came out last week documents what journalist Jerry Roberts calls “a disgraceful political process teeming with influence peddling, secrecy and sleaze.”

Two county supervisors used a political loophole to meet in private and create legislation without public knowledge. The report notes that industry leaders were in contact with county supervisors right before key votes, and provided tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions.

“It’s hard to build a doghouse in Santa Barbara County without 12 years of permits,” says Roberts. “They tried to implant a new industry rather than trying to see if they couldn’t [sic] work it in, in a more compatible way with neighborhoods and other industries.”

County Supervisor Das Williams says the industry has been important for employment and for discouraging black market marijuana sales, but says legalization will inevitably be a bumpy road.

He also says the ad hoc committee, which met behind closed doors, helped accelerate the process of legalizing the industry.

Williams says especially during the coronavirus pandemic, the expedited process saved the county from an even greater economic recession.

“We have hundreds of thousands of people that are slipping into poverty. But we have 5,000 jobs that are not going away that pay an average of 65K/year in farm work,” he says.

Williams also says the industry now brings in more money than sales tax, which is good news for public safety and social services. “If you are having a sheriff respond to an emergency on time, if your neighbor’s abused child has somebody taking care of them, if you have a library that’s open, it’s because of marijuana tax revenue.”

The grand jury report recommends the creation of an ethics commission.