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Santa Maria Sun / Cover Story

The following article was posted on October 17th, 2018, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 19, Issue 33 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 19, Issue 33

Santa Barbara County pot growers walk a fine line between staying legal, angering their neighbors, and getting raided

By Spencer Cole

A U-Haul van packed with pounds of freshly harvested marijuana eases its way down the narrow winding road on the back side of Cebada Canyon. As it rolls and bucks against uneven terrain, the driver brings the vehicle to a complete stop on the right shoulder to let a gunmetal Honda Accord pass by. 

"That's one of the good ones," Elizabeth explains, who asked the Sun to withhold her last name because her ranch has already been vandalized by people who she claims are illegal cannabis cultivators. 

The traffic is nonstop, she says, and the drivers aren't always so polite. It's been that way since Proposition 64 passed Nov. 8, 2016, when Californians overwhelmingly voted to legalize recreational marijuana. 


CANNABIS CANYON
Cebada Canyon, like Tepusquet Canyon near Santa Maria, is a snapshot of a culture war in Santa Barbara County between the marijuana industry and longtime residents who bought rural ranch land in some cases decades ago.
PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM

It's a day that will live in infamy for many of the canyon's residents, several of whom spoke to the Sun on the condition of anonymity due to ongoing tensions between cannabis growers and established older residents. 

They argue that out-of-area developers and marijuana cultivators swept into their peaceful little slice of ranchland northeast of Lompoc with an eye only for big bucks and quick profit–and no regard for how they affect the land around and under them. Growers counter that they're just capitalizing on affordable plots of land in and around friendly markets while they wait for the state and county to set their regulatory mechanisms into place. 

Meanwhile, the once peaceful canyon known for horseback riding and sprawling ranches has found itself at the center of conflict and much more than a just handful of neighborly spats. 

There have been reports of vandalism, intimidation, water theft, and even potential gang or drug cartel activity. The Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Office is investigating some of the alleged crimes but declined to elaborate further. 

Lifelong residents say the new commercial grows could potentially drain the area's ailing aquifer. A handful of Cebada residents say the canyon will never look (or smell) the same. 

"This place was originally developed as little family ranchettes, you know where you could have your kids and grandkids out and you didn't worry about things," a retired California Highway Patrol Officer told the Sun. "Now we have so many illegal grows ... I count the U-Hauls as they go by."

How Santa Barbara County addresses Cebada Canyon's cannabis conundrum will provide a snapshot for the future of its budding marijuana industry, which is positioned to be one of the largest and most productive in California. 

But before the green economic machine can begin firing on all cylinders, pot farmers have to be in compliance with the county so it can reap the benefits of millions of dollars in tax revenue. And that may only happen if the state opts to refine its cumbersome track-and-trace, or official inventory monitoring, system. Strict testing and environmental impact mitigation requirements have created more obstacles than pathways for growers to get legal. 

In the meantime, local law enforcement is tasked with sussing out violators and determining which businesses are at least attempting to follow a shifting set of rules. Residents who oppose commercial cannabis operations popping up near their homes have few options except to report the activity and wait. Although much is still uncertain, one thing is clear: California's so called "green rush" has already left an indelible mark on Santa Barbara County. 

"I don't know if places like Cebada or Tepusquet Canyon will ever be the same," Deputy County Executive Officer Dennis Bozanich told the Sun

Black market 

No jurisdiction has more state issued cultivation licenses than Santa Barbara County. Even Humboldt, of the famed "Emerald Triangle," lags behind the Central Coast. Santa Barbara alone is expected to harvest more marijuana annually than the entire state can consume, according to multiple staff interviews and documents. 


ROLLING REGULATIONS
Pot growers in California say it’s hard to get in compliance with the state due to stringent and, at times, unnecessarily complicated regulations.
PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM

In December 2017, consultants projected that the county would rake in tens of millions of dollars in tax revenue once all its pot growers got assimilated into the legal marketplace. The initial numbers ranged anywhere from $9 million to $27 million. The county has yet to collect any taxes. 

Holdups at the state regulatory and county level consistently create obstacles for cannabis operators trying to get above board, according to county officials and cultivators. Meanwhile, local residents say growers in some areas are creating nuisances that range from petty squabbles among neighbors to potential environmental disasters with few avenues for conflict resolution or legal enforcement. 

Currently, the county is tacking toward assimilating as many willing cannabis business owners into the legal system as possible while preparing a cudgel of enforcement to sweep in and clear out illicit operations. 

Whether that happens depends on if growers are staying in compliance and reporting their activity to officials. Those same operators will also eventually have to face a hearing with their neighbors, Santa Barbara County planning commissioners, and the Board of Supervisors if they wish to get conditional use permits for growing pot.

And there's still considerable ground to cover before the majority of illegal sites can even be identified and ultimately transitioned to legal status or eliminated by authorities. 

Canyon residents have had to accept the shifting reality over the past two years as the state and local governments attempt to organize an industry that has long been primarily in the shadows–and will always in part, according to law enforcement, support black maket deals.

"Even looking at Colorado and Oregon as examples, there's still illegal grows being busted," Santa Barbara County Sheriff Lt. Brian Olmstead said. "And it's just completely different here. We're a big state. It's been unregulated for so long. They're all over–even here, every part of the county, there's grows." 

'A whole new world'

Jon moved to Lompoc to grow pot. His real name is withheld because his employer is transitioning their farm to legal status. An industry veteran, Jon has worked on sites all over the country but got his start in Northern California with family more than 20 years ago. 

He told the Sun that the county had been out to his "medium size" grow off State Route 246 twice already. 

"The only complaint we had was one neighbor and they were being facetious," he said.  

It takes a tremendous amount of work to get a cannabis cultivation site fully operational, let alone into legal compliance. Jon said he spends his days wearing a variety of hats: grower, builder, electrician, bookkeeper, manager. 

"I'm doing everything," he laughed. 

One thing he's noticed about a surprising amount of local growers? They're not completely familiar with what it means to run a bona fide company. Even if they have the money to look the part. 

"I told my boss, 'You know we're gonna need an office, right?' A lot of people here don't even know what an SOP–Standard Operating Procedure–is," Jon said. "These guys don't always understand that just because we have property and can plant a plant doesn't mean it's gonna be a business. You can't just throw money at this." 

When asked about the complaints against growers in Cebada, Jon explained that a lot of cultivators just wanted to plant their crops and make what they could to get by. He said that if others like him are causing the problems that some of the canyon's residents allege, then the cannabis community needs to start listening to their neighbors and consider how their work impacts the environment. 

"But people need to remember that we go through a lot to be allowed to do what we do," he added. 

In order to be fully compliant in Santa Barbara County, growers had to apply for a temporary state license within the past two years. Those documents are set to expire at the end of 2018. The interim period was supposed to provide operators with ample time to apply for a county issued land-use permit and business license, thereby completing the compliance process. 

On Sept. 17, Deputy County Executive Officer Bozanich informed a room full of cultivators in Santa Barbara that fewer than 40 percent of all of the county's growers had applied for an annual land-use permit. 

"Our goal is to keep people in compliance until they don't want to be in compliance anymore, and then we have enforcement," Bozanich told the room. 

Seven days earlier, the county's Cannabis Compliance Team destroyed nearly 1,500 marijuana plants as part of a sweeping operation against illicit grows sites in Tepusquet Canyon near Santa Maria. A number of wells have reportedly gone dry in the area, which has been a hotspot for conflict between longtime residents and cannabis cultivators for years. 

"There is more planned," Bozanich said, before adjourning the meeting. 

More raids followed. Thousands of plants were destroyed in the process, with multiple illegal sites shuttered. However, as of mid October, only about half of the county's cultivators had approached officials for permits. 

Bozanich attributed the delay to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, along with the Regional Water Quality Control Board, creating hiccups with strict regulatory requirements on environmental disturbances and water use. 

"If they can't get clearance on things like that, then why would they apply to the county for a land-use permit and business license? If that's kind of the show-stopper for their state license, they might have to go somewhere else," he added. 

Testing has also been an ongoing issue for growers. Cultivators claim the state has a poor oversight system for its many facilities tasked with determining if marijuana and its extracts came into contact with harmful pesticides. One sticking point is the labs doing the tests don't currently have a universal standard for how to conduct such procedures. The result is that some samples come out clean while others from the same crop come back marked as contaminated.

Another complication on this side of regulation is due to how the federal government views cannabis. As far as the Drug Enforcement Agency is concerned, it's the most dangerous type of narcotic, or a Schedule 1 drug. That means there is no list of acceptable pesticides for marijuana from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Currently, only about a dozen essential oils are considered usable in California, and all of those do little to limit pests, except suffocate them when sprayed directly. 

So, if a neighbor douses different crops near a marijuana farm with essentially any common pesticide, that grow faces risk of contamination.
Santa Barbara County Ag Commissioner Cathy Fisher told the Sun that California's cannabis testing labs were a major hurdle for cooperating growers to clear.
"That, right now, I'm seeing is the white elephant," she said. "The labs: Without having any standards or regulatory oversight of any kind is the thing that's interfering with the success of the regulatory program."

Jon said that all growers could do was try to communicate with county and state officials as clearly as possible their intentions to get and stay in compliance. It's either that or face consequences involving loud knocks on doors in the middle of the night, flashing lights, and lengthy court cases. 

"This is a whole new world and a lot people don't know what they're getting into," Jon added, "even the state's not ready for it." 

Determining legality

Eight addresses are registered to grow cannabis in Cebada Canyon, according to the county Planning and Development Department. Only two of them have active temporary state-issued licenses allowing cultivation. The rest are either marked "about to expire" or "inactive." 

And even though many of these grows may technically be illegal, it's taken the county a long time to conduct enforcement operations. Part of the reason is because the state keeps pushing back the expiration date on temporary licenses.

They were due to run out in January 2019, but an extended provisional license period is tacking on an additional year, according to the Bureau of Cannabis Control (BCC). 

"In some ways, it's kicking the can down the road," Sheriff Lt. Olmstead said of the process. 

Santa Barbara County's criminal marijuana enforcement arm faced plenty of its own obstacles before it was ready to bust bad growers. The sheriff-run Cannabis Compliance Team requires a $1.5 million annual operating budget, which the county paid out of pocket by way of its general fund before the tax revenue from marijuana sales could start stuffing county coffers. 

Olmstead said the compliance team was still going through the staffing process as of Oct. 11, and currently only had two investigators on the team. There are plans to add a sergeant and three more investigators to the unit as soon as possible. 

The task force began conducting operations in September and has thus far destroyed more than 17,000 illegal pot plants. The unit raided Cebada for the first time on Oct. 15 but arrived on scene after the cultivators had harvested the majority of their crops. Authorities did find some 1,400 "younger plants" and destroyed them on site. 

Olmstead told the Sun that the sheer volume of illegal grows makes catching lawbreakers difficult enough, before even considering all the regulatory issues. 

"I would say there's by far more illegal grows than legal grows only because we haven't catalogued all the grows in the county, and I would say the majority have just blossomed over the past two years," Olmstead explained. 

Santa Barbara County pot farms exploded in number after the Board of Supervisors placed a moratorium on growing medicinal or recreational cannabis on Jan. 19, 2016. The ban could be circumvented if cultivators were willing to sign an affidavit saying they had been growing medical marijuana on location before that date.

The idea was to allow collectives–associations or loosely affiliated groups of people legally allowed to cultivate or purchase medicinal marijuana–a chance to continue operations during the state's transition period to fully fledged legalization. But a problem quickly emerged. 

One of the stipulations with the affidavit came from the growers certifying that their farms had been around since before the January ban. But the county simply didn't have the resources to go to each location and follow up to determine whether the business owner was lying or not.
It resulted in a lot of opportunistic operators setting up shop immediately after state recreational legalization in an attempt to hoodwink compliance officers. 

Olmstead said that those farms were the first targets for narcotics teams. 

"We know there's a ton of people that either expanded or just started their grow after Jan. 19, 2016," he added. "Those are the ones we've been doing enforcement on so far." 

And investigators are finally finding some footing, according to Olmstead. Along with checking every business that has a signed affidavit, they're now combing through satellite imagery of grows to see what they looked like before the cut-off date. Those factors, coupled with anonymous tips from neighbors–who are sometimes legal marijuana growers–is making it easier for the Cannabis Compliance Team to do its job.

"The rules are getting a lot more defined," Olmstead said. "We could work seven days a week, every week, until next summer and still not get them all."


HOOP DREAMS
Hoop Houses are favored by cannabis growers for their controlled environments and relative privacy.
PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM

Bright lights

The lights glitter like burning candles scattered across Cebada Canyon's valley floor. At least a dozen hoop houses dot the landscape, their heat lamps shining beneath thin white cloth against a moonless sky. 

"These all used to be primarily family homes," Elizabeth says, looking down from a cliff above a complex with several hoop structures. 

Now all these plots are commercially developed, according to multiple canyon residents who are against industrialized cannabis cultivation in the area.
"It's like a whole city lit up here at night," Elizabeth adds as she turns and walks toward her pickup truck. "And it's all because they took advantage and planted after the moratorium while the state stuck their head in the sand."

A deer emerges from some brush and ambles into her path. Pausing to peer down at the batches of UV light flooding the surrounding hillsides, the animal angles away from their glow. 

It disappears into the undergrowth.

The lights keep burning.

The next day, Deputy County Executive Officer Bozanich reflected on the issues surrounding the canyon and its residents.

"They clearly are feeling impacted by traffic, noise, lights in the hills, all kinds of other stuff that really goes beyond anything traditionally that's occurred there," he told the Sun

When the county's growers are finally either eliminated or assimilated into the legal market, one of their final steps will be to apply for a conditional use permit. To get the document, cultivators will have to undergo a hearing in front of the Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors, as well as any neighbors that may be affected by their operation. 

The permits prohibit pot planters from polluting nearby areas with unwanted smells, noises, or lights. The public comment period is supposed to be a safeguard ensuring cannabis businesses will play nicely when they move into a new area. 

Elizabeth and her neighbors eagerly await the day they can chime in on the canyon's newest residents. 

Bozanich said it was clear Cebada had several cases where growers had been, at the very least, disrespectful to their neighbors. 

"And when you do things like that, it makes it really hard for the board or Planning Commission to make a decision in your favor," he added. 

County staff and supervisors hope that once the use-permit hearings begin, bad actors will be held accountable in larger numbers, according to Bozanich. 

"It's gonna put operators in a position of needing to be responsive to their neighbors," he said. "Even if they are successful in getting a permit, to keep their permit and keep their license, they're gonna have to do a whole lot of things to reduce any nuisances. 

"Either that, or find another place to go." 

Contact Staff Writer Spencer Cole at scole@santamariasun.com.




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