Cannabis Under Fire: Part 2

By Nick Schou   |   July 16, 2020

Das Williams, Santa Barbara’s First District Supervisor, suddenly found himself under a harsh, almost Perry Mason-style cross examination during a July 13 interview with Steve Chiotakis, host of KCRW’S Greater L.A. radio talk show. “Your campaign contributions come from pot lobbyists trying to grow weed,” Chiotakis scoffed at one point. “And look, it’s legal, yeah, but it kind of smells bad.”

As the Montecito Journal reported last week, that’s more or less the same conclusion reached two weeks ago by Santa Barbara’s Grand Jury in its scathing report targeting the cannabis policy pursued by Williams and fellow supervisor Steve Lavagnino. The duo, jurors wrote, offered “unfettered access” to the marijuana lobby via an ad-hoc committee consisting of themselves, thus, effectively writing the county’s marijuana policy without any additional input or adherence to Brown Act public disclosure laws. The jury’s 26-page report chronicled a series of what could be charitably called poor policy decisions, while highlighting the close relationship between the two councilmen and the cannabis lobby.

Jurors took special exception to the fact that the ad-hoc committee allowed cannabis farmers to simply sign voluntary affidavits claiming they were obeying the law while being taxed only on the “gross receipts” they claimed, rather than the actual square footage of the farms. The system is intended to be monitored by county officials who track cannabis from seed to sale via brand-new, bar-code software established by state regulators and enforce via spot visits. Although there have been few enforcement raids to speak of, they have happened, including one on January 22 carried out by Santa Barbara County’s cannabis enforcement team, assisted by state food and game and agricultural officials.

Arrested that day was Barry Brand, then the head of CARP Growers, an industry group that represents a dozen legal cannabis farmers in Carpinteria. The group churns out a steady supply of press releases about the industry’s charitable donations in town. As first reported in the Los Angeles Times, Brand provided campaign donations of $8,000 to Williams and $2,000 to Lavagnino. It turns out that Brand, who voluntarily resigned from CARP Growers after his arrest, had been illegally processing cannabis into oil worth more than $1 million. (Among residents, cannabis oil processing is viewed as one of the chief culprits in the odor complaints that have plagued Carpinteria.)

With such seemingly scarce enforcement, the Grand Jury report has raised hopes among many Carpinteria residents that their concerns might finally be addressed rather than brushed aside. “I’ve never had faith that the Sheriff’s Department would really do anything,” said one former county official. “You have Das talking about getting rid of the bad guys, but one day they are a bad guy and then the next day they are giving you money.”

Making a Federal Case

Among Carpinteria homeowners, the war over cannabis legalization in Santa Barbara is personal. Tales abound of houses that have been on the real estate market for years without bids because they’re located across the street from a greenhouse that used to grow tulips but now cultivates marijuana.

In March, Williams survived a strong challenge by first-time supervisorial candidate Laura Capps, who made cannabis reform a central issue of her platform and won many votes in Montecito and Carpinteria. Many who supported Capps on this issue had already signed a January 20 letter on behalf of the Santa Barbara Coalition for Responsible Cannabis asking federal prosecutor Nicola Hanna (who is currently prosecuting Los Angeles City Councilman Jose Huizar for corruption involving real estate developers in that city), to investigate the explosion of marijuana farms in Carpinteria.

“We are writing you to seek protection for the residents, businesses, schools, and children who are suffering from the unprecedented level of marijuana cultivation in Santa Barbara County,” the letter begins. “Most grievously impacted are the school children of Carpinteria Valley, as well as Buellton, and commercial grows near schools in other areas of the County.”

Among other demands, the letter requested an investigation of commercial cannabis cultivators that are operating within 1,000 feet of schools and other protected facilities in Carpinteria, especially given the concentration of commercial cannabis cultivation. The letter promised that a federal “investigation into these matters could uncover additional federal violations potentially involving corruption and other financial crimes.”

Attached to the group’s seven-page complaint were “Letters of Resolution” by the cities of Carpinteria, Solvang, Goleta, and Buellton, all of them condemning the county’s cannabis policy. In addition to Concerned Carpinterians, Padaro Lane Association, Friends of Shephards Mesa, and other groups, as well as three physicians from Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital’s Department of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine, 105 residents signed the letter.

Although the agency received the letter six months ago, it remains unclear if the U.S. Attorney’s office in L.A., which is responsible for federal drug prosecutions throughout Southern California, many of them involving global cartels, is actively investigating the complaint. Sources in Carpinteria told the Journal the agency has since followed up with them about the complaint. The agency, though, doesn’t officially comment on ongoing investigations, except to say, “No comment,” which is exactly what Thom Mrozek, an agency spokesman, said in response to our interview request.

A Different World, Before Legal Pot

If federal prosecutors in Los Angeles were indeed investigating cannabis in Santa Barbara, it wouldn’t be the first time this has happened in recent years.

In 2012, the U.S. Attorney’s office sent dozens of letters to the city’s illegal dispensaries, putting them on notice for potential raids while simultaneously warning landlords that their buildings could be seized via federal asset forfeiture laws. Those who failed to heed the warning faced imminent prosecution. On May 2 of that year, federal agents raided the Pacific Coast Collective on North Milpas Street, as well as a grow house located on Haley Street. That same week, the feds filed asset forfeiture lawsuits against three landlords charged with “knowingly” allowing illegal indoor marijuana businesses to operate in the city.

At the time, Williams, who had yet to arrive in Sacramento for his stint in the California State Assembly, served on Santa Barbara’s city council. An outspoken advocate of legalizing marijuana, he had done little in the months leading up to the raids to address concerns about the proliferation of unlicensed dispensaries, particularly on Milpas.

“The city wouldn’t do the right thing,” recalled Sharon Byrne, now the executive director of the Montecito Association but then the similarly titled head of the Milpas Community Association. “Das was on the council then and he was a real thorn,” she said. “It was very clear to us the city was never going to enforce the law and was just going to carry the water for the dispensaries. They were just shady operators from L.A. and had nothing to do with medical marijuana or anything like that.”

Then as now, Milpas and other downtown areas faced higher-than-average crime and homelessness. “The city wasn’t doing anything and we had more of these damn things opening up than Starbucks. It was out of control.”

After doing a quick Google search, Byrne found herself on the line with the Justice Department. “I just called them up,” she said. “I asked them, ‘Can you come up and enforce the law?’ I mean, if I started a stall and sold pot on the street, nobody would stop me.”

According to Byrne, once the U.S. Attorney looked into her complaint and prosecutors began sending stamped letters to the offending dispensaries and their landlords, the illegal dispensaries were soon gone. “Within a month they were up here,” she said of the feds. “But that was 2012, a different world, before legal pot.”

Greetings, Greater L.A.!

In his KCRW interview this week, a relaxed sounding Williams didn’t hesitate to defend his relationship with those lobbyists, although he found their frequent requests for meetings “annoying.” That said, he had no qualms about those campaign contributions, in fact quite the opposite. “Most of the people that grow marijuana in my community, Carpinteria,” he told Chiotakis, “are the same flower growers, old Dutch flower growers, that are pillars of the community. They fund Girls, Inc., the Boys and Girls Club, the school district. I don’t have a problem with their support.”

Williams even went so far as to characterize the massive explosion of marijuana farming in Carpinteria as a major success. “The process has been enormously good for the community and the county,” he said, adding that despite many county residents losing jobs during the pandemic, the cannabis industry, which Governor Gavin Newsom has ruled “essential” to California’s economy, was keeping people working. “We have 5,000 jobs that aren’t going away,” Williams claimed, adding that anyone grateful for any social service in Santa Barbara should essentially thank him for raising millions in tax revenue via the cannabis crop.

More Dispensaries?

In some ways it’s easy to see why Williams seems so unconcerned. Looking back over the past four years, it’s clear that the U.S. government’s anti-marijuana policy has changed radically since a majority of California voters legalized recreational marijuana for adults in November 2016. The illegal dispensaries that used to operate are gone, and there are only two legal dispensaries currently operating in Santa Barbara, with none in Montecito, Summerland, or Carpinteria.

But on June 29, Santa Barbara County issued a press release stating that it was holding a series of community meetings aimed at getting public input for adding several more dispensaries throughout the county. Every area in the county with its own community plan must participate in the hearings, including Isla Vista, Santa Ynez Valley, Toro Canyon/Summerland, Orcutt, Eastern Goleta Valley, and Los Alamos.

Montecito, it’s worth mentioning, is not on that list. At first, sources said, county officials indicated they might locate a dispensary in the parking lot adjacent to the CVS Pharmacy, but supervisors, including Williams, quickly scuttled the idea. “Montecito was exempted thanks to a quirk in the county code,” Byrne explained. “Our business district is so weird; it’s all locals,” she said. “It’s not a suitable site.”

While Carpinteria isn’t on that list either, local residents are of course far more concerned about the unchecked growth of cannabis farms and the never-ending odor. “I always call people and ask about the smells,” said one resident who asked not to be identified by name.

Although complaints seem to have gone down lately, she thinks some of it has to do with people staying indoors as much as possible. “With this COVID thing, I am not out as much,” she said. “But there are still people who have been trying to sell their house for years and they’ve had just terrible complaints about the smell.”

Another resident who acknowledged signing the complaint letter sent to the U.S. Attorney’s office six months ago insisted that the feds are indeed taking the matter seriously. “To me, the grows around the high school are in violation of federal law saying you can’t grow within 1,000 feet, but why would you grow marijuana near schools, period?” the person asked. “This is what the US Attorney is investigating: the health issues, the sheer greed.”

 

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