How Santa Barbara County opened its doors to the world's largest marijuana farms
In a sandy draw of the Santa Rita Hills, a cannabis company is planning to erect hoop greenhouses over 147 acres — the size of 130 football fields — to create the largest legal marijuana grow on Earth.
Across the Santa Ynez River, two miles away, a farmer is planting the planet’s second-biggest grow, at 83 acres. Several operations are already as large as what industry trackers say are the world’s other behemoths, in Colorado and British Columbia, with a dozen more slated to be much bigger.
Santa Barbara County’s famed wine region — with its giant live oaks and destination tasting rooms — and the quiet beach town of Carpinteria have become the unlikely capital of California’s legal pot market.
Now row after row of white plastic hoop houses sprawl amid rolling vineyards and country estates, and coastal bungalows and schools carry the whiff of backcountry Humboldt.
Lobbied heavily by the marijuana industry, Santa Barbara County officials opened the door to big cannabis interests in the last two years like no other county in the nation, setting off a largely unregulated rush of planting in a region not previously known for the crop. County supervisors voted not to limit the size and number of marijuana grows. They chose not to vet growers’ applications for licenses or conduct site inspections.
They decided to tax the operations based on gross revenue instead of licensed square footage, as Humboldt and Monterey counties do, even though the county has no method to verify the numbers. So far, the county has received a fraction of what its consultants had predicted.
Santa Barbara County officials are not alone in trying to lure cannabis cultivation. But the other local governments seeking this revenue stream are mostly in remote, economically depressed regions, not high-priced coastal and tourist areas.
In Santa Barbara, growers and their hired advocates developed close ties to two county supervisors, Das Williamsand Steve Lavagnino, who pushed for and won nearly every significant measure the cultivators asked for. A third supervisor elected in November, Gregg Hart, hired a marijuana lobbyist as his chief of staff.
The cannabis boom has caused a backlash from residents and vintners afflicted by the smell, and farmers who worry that spraying their avocados could make them financially liable for tainting multimillion-dollar marijuana crops. Fearing for their businesses and quality of life, they have organized into activist groups, hired attorneys, filed lawsuits and zoning appeals.
The county is now trying to rein in the industry with stricter regulations and law enforcement.
California voters passedProposition 64, legalizing recreational marijuana, in November 2016. In the ensuing 16 months, Santa Barbara County supervisors worked on plans to regulate and tax the industry, while allowing it to vastly expand under temporary licenses.
The open window, combined with no limits on crop size, drew companies with the means to invest millions of dollars.
Farms in Santa Barbara County hold 35% of all cultivation licenses issued in California this year, despite the county having only 1.8% of the state’s land. Humboldt County, the historic center of the marijuana universe, has 22%, while illegal grows there continue to dominate the larger black market.
Santa Barbara County officials say the industry will boost the agricultural economy, provide jobs and shore up government coffers.
Williams said the revenue from the cannabis tax allowed the county to create a sheriff’s enforcement team that began eradicating illegal grows in August. “Thirty-five raids in a small county is a lot,” he said.