By Jeff Giordano
June 23, 2019, published in the Santa Barbara Press-Reader This guest opinion references a Los Angeles Times article, “The world’s largest pot farms and how Santa Barbara opened the door”(June 12th).
Since cannabis firm Tilray’s successful IPO, investors have poured capital into marijuana. This Green Rush has allowed investors and businesspeople (so called “growers”) to exploit our county supervisors, who have acted more like partners than impartial representatives for the 400,000 or so other county residents.
Behind closed doors, the Board of Supervisors disregarded our Master Plan’s preference for existing business (among other things) and accelerated the process (CEQA was a joke). This was purposefully done while many of us were either evacuated or engulfed in the worst county disaster in history.
The Board of Supervisors did not honestly seek community comment and used their control of the APCD, Planning Commission and Executive Office to reward the growers with the most favorable cannabis ordinance in the state. Had they opened the process to the community and experts from other states, today’s “unforeseen” consequences would have been predictable.
The question I always asked was “why?” Well, Joe Mozingo’s Los Angeles Times article, “The world’s largest pot farms and how Santa Barbara opened the door,” (June 12th), began to provide some of the answers. According to the article: 1) The Board of Supervisors circumvented public hearing requirements (minimally violating the spirit of the Brown and Bagley-Keene acts) by forming an ad hoc committee that developed many of the provisions that ultimately comprised the ordinance; 2) They cozied up to growers through, among other things, hires and letters of recommendations — remember, the Board of Supervisors is still making ordinance-related decisions; 3) They circumvented Prop. 64’s seven-year “large grow” moratorium by allowing permit stacking and unlimited licenses, thwarting referendum and voter intent while squeezing out “small grow” local resident-farmers; 4) They disregarded recommendations that would have required verification of new grower affidavits; and 5) They disregarded recommendations that would have shifted costs to growers, instead intentionally and unnecessarily saddling the county (i.e., taxpayers) with appeal costs. Indeed, the one-sided ordinance has caused the county unnecessary litigation costs, not to mention the legal fees that many residents have started to incur.
Finally, contrary to other counties, they created a tax scheme with an anemic and unverifiable top-line tax that may have saved the growers, and cost the county, nearly $30 million. Other counties that focus on acreage are not de facto cannabis partners, can easily verify what is owed and, most importantly, penalize over-growing. (According to the Times article, Santa Barbara now grows more cannabis than the entire state is likely to demand).
Remember, our $930 million county “made” just $5.1 million across cultivation and five other categories, with nearly 40 percent going to “enforcement” (i.e., taking out the competition).
A single out-of-town reporter — without investigative or subpoena power — has implicated three of our five county supervisors and our deputy CEO in certain questionable conduct and decisions. We need to demand:
— That county District Attorney Joyce Dudley and the head of her Consumer Protection Division immediately initiate a Grand Jury investigation into the possible violations contained in the Times article;
— That the three supervisors (and possibly the entire Board of Supervisors), together with the deputy CEO, immediately and voluntarily recuse themselves from any cannabis-related issues until the completion of a Grand Jury investigation. This is absolutely necessary to avoid the appearance of impropriety and to begin to restore public trust;
— An economic impact study, health studies, and a moratorium, which, following the recent revelations, is more imperative than ever.
Let’s all remember that these growers (some from Los Angeles who recently raised $50 million-plus) have taken certain risks and are presently reaping the rewards. They invested in a federally illegal drug under a scheme that provided them with temporary permits and provisional licenses. In return, they have been rewarded with the most favorable regulatory scheme across 58 California counties (one that they helped create), first mover advantage, deep profit margins and huge, ongoing monthly cash revenues. Let’s begin to focus on the rest of the county by immediately imposing regulatory restrictions with teeth. (News flash: Businesspeople, even if well-intentioned, do not voluntarily add expenses unless required.)
The Cannabis Ordinance has the ability to change our county forever. It is imperative that whatever ultimately happens, residents believe that decisions were evenhanded, honest and above board. We need to demand the restoration of public trust.
Unfortunately, what the Times article didn’t do was point to the systemic problem that exists in our nearly $1B county — the Board of Supervisors has monarch-like powers. These five politicians basically control the Planning Commission, Management Office, APCD and a variety of other agencies. There is neither agency independence nor checks and balances.
What seems noticeably absent from our county is an ethics commission. Like many cities and counties across the state, this is something that Santa Barbara desperately requires. Instead, following the article, certain supervisors played the misdirection game, sending constituents notice of their upcoming fundraising events. The arrogance is truly unbridled!
I know we have a fractionalized media landscape, one that unfortunately made the board’s actions a bit easier to cloak, but it’s time we yell in unison for action: Santa Barbara County requires an independent investigation, recusal, and an ethics commission.
As for the Board of Supervisors as a whole, well, that saga has yet to be written. My hope is that an investigation, future community action, fearless press, karma and the various 501(c) 4s that are popping up will leave them with nothing but their reputation. Or, of course, they could simply resign, which would be my personal preference.
On a related note, Rep. Salud Carbajal’s deafening silence at the federal level has only frustrated the situation.
The author is a businessperson and former L.A. Deputy District Attorney, and is a Santa Barbara County resident. The LA Times article referenced was : “The world’s largest pot farms and how Santa Barbara opened the door”(June 12th).