California’s Billion-Dollar Weed Boondoggle

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California’s Billion-Dollar Weed Boondoggle
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This article originally appeared on The Bulwark and is posted with permission by the author


By A.L. Bardach

It wasn’t so long ago that visitors to bucolic Santa Barbara County were greeted with an aromatic spray of ocean breezes perfumed by citrus. Oh my, they crooned.

These days, you are more likely to get whacked by a wall of rancid skunk as you glide across the border from Ventura County to Santa Barbara County. In other parts, the olfactory distress is accompanied by a blaze of visual blight: Where once there were fields of green there are now seas of white plastic tents.

So much has gone so wrong with California’s ballyhooed venture into the cannabis business, it’s impossible to pinpoint its most singular failure. For all those states preparing to plunge into the weed business—caution: California is a flashing red light.

To anyone familiar with California’s long history with marijuana, this may be hard to believe: Santa Barbara is now growing more weed than Humboldt County.

For the past five years, furious residents of Santa Barbara County have waged a battle against a unilateral decision by supervisors to turn the county into the largest marijuana “grow site” in the state, likely the nation. The decision has been bitterly opposed, sued over, protested, and appealed by the county’s residents, city officials, schools, and traditional agriculture concerns—the producers of wine, avocados, citrus, vegetables. (Full disclosure: My husband and I live in Santa Barbara County—downwind from some of the grows—and have backed grassroots groups fighting for basic acreage limits and odor enforcement.)

Let me state the obligatory caveat: A majority of Californians—myself included—voted for and support the legalization and decriminalization of cannabis use. Amen.

But no one voted for the installation of industrial-sized massive grows of marijuana in vented greenhouses or open fields with no mandatory odor and air-quality controls, no acreage or license limits—and enforcement at about zip.

Did I mention that cannabis is a failing business? California growers claim their marijuana operations are hemorrhaging revenue despite every known carrot and concession from the state. Sacramento even recently suspended state cultivation taxes—something that California, projecting a $22.5 billion deficit this fiscal year, can ill afford. Yet with wholesale cannabis prices falling, according to SFGATE, by as much as 95 percent since 2016, many smaller producers have been forced out.

All of which is to say, California’s weed boondoggle arises from the inevitable woe of ignoring supply and demand economics. The state’s decision to greenlight massive amounts of cannabis glutted the market at three to five times demand, driving down prices. At the same time, it catalyzed a huge illegal market that has outperformed the legal market by two or three times. Many growers simply sell to the black market, thus making the state an unwitting partner in crime, though no one in Sacramento has any illusions as to what is happening.

In Santa Barbara County, tax revenues from pot dropped an astounding 45 percent over the last two fiscal years, and are still trending downward. The county’s billion-dollar-plus budget gets a bare trickle from cannabis, not enough to even cover enforcement. At the same time, the cannabis industry costs the county millions in its adverse impacts from litigation costs, harm to local agriculture, and lost business, not to mention damage to its “brand” of sun, sea, and wealth. Plus there are the seemingly endless appeals filed by exhausted yet determined residents and businesses against the county and cannabis growers that county attorneys and staff are ordered to defend.


Then there is the stink. Thousands of odor complaints have been filed with Santa Barbara County.

Vintners, responsible for a reliable multibillion-dollar crop, complain that the odors and byproducts of cannabis terpenes stink up their tasting rooms, negatively impact their vineyards, and deplete precious water sources. Some have sued or appealed; other have threatened to pack up and leave for more hospitable climes.

The blowback has been especially harsh from the well-heeled residents of Padaro Lane—home to George Lucas, Kevin Costner, Conan O’Brien, and a half dozen major CEOs. Changing winds deliver the skunk stench from nearby pot grows onto their multimillion-dollar properties and pristine beach. A year ago, said muckety-mucks flexed their collective muscle, and, along with the grassroots organization Concerned Carpinterians, succeeded in nixing the gubernatorial appointment to the California Coastal Commission of the most culpable county supervisor, Das Williams.

Williams—dubbed “the industry’s reigning lap dog” by Jerry Roberts, Santa Barbara’s best known reporter and a former editor of the San Francisco Chronicle and the Santa Barbara News-Press—has taken $100,000-plus in campaign donations from local cannabis growers and lobbyists since legalization. That’s a huge industry contribution by Santa Barbara standards. Despite years of local fury and bad press, Williams has adopted a Trumpian modus operandi: doubling-down, installing his chief of staff as head of the local Democratic party, and refusing to amend the county’s cannabis ordinance—which would be the simplest and most effective solution. Williams also shares Trump’s partiality to attacking reporters—privately but also from the Board of Supervisors’ podium—as well as the grand jury, not to mention constituents at odds with his policies.

Local and national media have squarely laid blame on Williams and his North Coast ally, Steve Lavagnino. As documented in a withering grand jury report, the two  collaborated with cannabis lobbyists in writing the cannabis ordinance via a closed-door ad hoc subcommittee, thus bypassing the transparency and openness demands of the state’s sunshine law.

Among the stunners was the supervisors caving to lobbyists’ demand that growers be allowed to “self-declare” their weed profits, and hence the taxes they owed. That’s akin to being allowed to tell the IRS what you believe you should pay. In the absence of enforcement, many growers simply don’t even bother reporting revenue.

Santa Barbara supervisors, who have given themselves pretty much unfettered powers and have no term limits, also nixed mandatory effective odor control and enforcement. As anyone who lives near industrial cultivation of marijuana knows, it stinks. It’s a foulness that has engulfed nearby schools, businesses, and residences. A surge in allergies, asthma, and respiratory illnesses prompted several Santa Barbara pulmonologists to join an appeal to the U.S. attorney for the Central District of California to intervene in the matter.

In December, the Los Angeles Times chronicled a stunning uptick in cannabis worker deaths from fumes in greenhouses and hazards in open fields. State cannabis authorities and OSHA have a dismal record when it comes to worker health and safety or the growing case load of  respiratory and immune illnesses related to cannabis grows. Numerous doctors in Santa Barbara, though cautious not to breach patient confidentiality, say they have said they have seen an increasing load of patients with respiratory issues who live near the cannabis nurseries or grows.

Greenhouse workers, of course, have it worse than complaining residents who might be a mile or two away. One prominent doctor told me that when she informed a young cannabis worker that she needed to find other work or face irreversible respiratory issues, the woman responded, “I can’t. I get $18 an hour plus they pay for a doctor and I am supporting a family in Mexico.”

Beyond the workplace, the disregard for the general public health is jaw-dropping. For example, the high school in Carpinteria is surrounded by five massive cannabis operations—all grown in vented greenhouses. One weed nursery is just 360 feet from the high school, despite federal law that requires a 1,000-foot buffer from schools and child-care facilities. Driving by the school can be a stinkfest—prompting health warnings to visiting sports teams about playing on school fields. Inside, students and teachers have complained of nauseating odors and headaches. One neighbor of ours said his wife often felt nauseated just dropping their children at the school.

Three quarters of the students at the school are Hispanic, some from undocumented families. Santa Barbara supervisors shrewdly designated weed grows to lower-income areas. Not one marijuana grow—nor a single cannabis dispensary—was proposed by Williams for adjacent Montecito, the storied home of the rich and famous.

The two Carpinteria school board members who vocally opposed the pot grows being adjacent to schools, along with “donations” from same to the school district—citing federal law on both counts—well, they no longer serve.


The stink pervades more than the air. California’s legalized cannabis has been a boom business for sleazy politicians, tidily summed up by one LA Times headline: “‘$250,000 cash in a brown paper bag.’ How legal weed unleashed corruption in California.” It’s not hard to imagine how or why. Armored trucks carrying large amounts of cash (since federal law prohibits banks from offering services to cannabis businesses) can be seen coming and going from marijuana nurseries and grows throughout the state.

Cannabis may, of late, be a floundering business, paying a trifle in taxes—but it’s all cash, all the time.

An eye-popping LA Times investigative series chronicles how cannabis profits and tax revenues have nosedived while the illegal market, often tied to crime or cartels, has surged. At the same time, veteran mom-and-pop weed operations have been put out of business, displaced by corporate interests from out of state. That said, even major cannabis companies have taken big hits. Cresco, one of the country’s biggest, packed up its operations in Carpinteria late last year (community pushback also played a role).

And, as Jerry Roberts puts it, the county’s board of supervisors has become “a wholly owned subsidiary” of the cannabis lobby.

Said supervisors installed their own “Cannabis Czar,” Dennis Bozanich, to help draft the ordinance and recruit business to the county. When asked in 2018 to describe his vision for cannabis in Santa Barbara, he quipped, “world domination.” These days, Bozanich is a cannabis lobbyist pitching his product to the very same supervisors.

The pot industry’s coziness with politcos is not just a smelly Santa Barbara problem. While many remember that it was Gavin Newsom’s dinner at the French Laundry during the state’s COVID shutdown that kicked off his (ultimately failed) recall in 2021, few remember that the birthday honoree was Jason Kinney, Newsom’s state-level pot czar. Kinney is now a major cannabis lobbyist for Axiom, which just happens to have a bustling office in Santa Barbara.

Arguably, the greatest success of the cannabis lobby has been messaging. Consider how a state in a red-alert drought encourages mass production of one of nature’s biggest water guzzlers. Right behind almonds and alfalfa in the water Olympics, cannabis has sucked not a few of the state’s rivers, streams, creeks, and aquifers down to perilous levels. (Recent rains have helped but scientists warn they will not reverse the long-term trend.)

Moreover, many weed growers use county and city water run through reverse osmosis, a purification technique notorious for wasting a huge portion (reportedly between 50 to 75 percent) of the input water.

Drought and fire have long been California’s seasons. In a state famously ravaged by annual wildfires, none other than the Cannabis Business Times reported on an  environmental journal’s analysis that concluded that Santa Barbara County “has more than 95% of its cannabis farms located in new or intensifying hot spot zones.”

At least one illegal extraction operation in the hills of Montecito did catch fire. “Numerous extraction labs have exploded in this county,” the Santa Barbara county sheriff warned in a press release back in December 2017. “Additionally, these cases of fuel were left at the residence in the path of the oncoming [Thomas] fire making the situation even more volatile and dangerous.”

One can imagine the pun-filled headlines and SNL sketches about odoriferous smoke if these weed operations get ignited. But for those of us who live with the reality of annual wildfires—my husband and I were evacuated eight times in the last six years—it’s not quite as funny.

Considering the pot industry’s shrinking bottom line, plus the burdens that the industry and its alliance of compromised politicians inflict on communities, this is a lose-lose deal.

So if you want to get loaded, knock yourself out. But if you’re hoping to get rich on the cannabis craze, take a pass on the California model.

It’s been a bummer.


Ann Louise Bardach is a journalist and author of several books, including Cuba Confidential and Without Fidel. She won the PEN USA Award for Journalism for her reporting on Mexican politics. She lives in Santa Barbara County.

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sacjon Mar 30, 2023 04:14 PM
California’s Billion-Dollar Weed Boondoggle

Hey VOICE..... As much as I hate to be an "I told you so" and beat a dead horse, did Obama just become the first President to be indicted for a crime? Can you clarify what's all over the news right now? It's confusing, they keep saying it's this other guy, but you proved and assured us Obama was more corrupt...... :D

Voice of Reason Mar 31, 2023 01:48 PM
California’s Billion-Dollar Weed Boondoggle

Yes, indicted for the same thing Hillary paid an FEC fine for, something DNC spokesman called "aging and silly". I wonder if that DNC spokesman is also calling this indictment "aging and silly"? Ahh that double standard, if it wasn't for the double standard most politicians would have no standards at all.

https://www.cnn.com/2022/03/30/politics/clinton-dnc-steele-dossier-fusion-gps/index.html

Alexblue Mar 30, 2023 04:22 PM
California’s Billion-Dollar Weed Boondoggle

Sac, LOL, you know exactly where this is going to go.

Cultists can never ever believe that their leaders have done wrong, even when they see people around them dropping dead from the Kool-Aid they are about to drink---they will drink it anyway.

So have a laugh about Trump being indicted (and this is the first of a number coming down the pipeline) but we both know that nothing the that happens will change the thinking of someone like VOR.

sacjon Mar 29, 2023 04:09 PM
California’s Billion-Dollar Weed Boondoggle

LCP - they're not deleted. Off topic comments (like yours) are put in the Penalty Box, not removed entirely, usually. Comments about deletions and the policy are also removed.

Red Creek Mar 29, 2023 11:24 AM
California’s Billion-Dollar Weed Boondoggle

Thorough and interesting article. Thank you EdHat for the posting, and the author for the research. I know wine growers are being negatively affected by the corporate grows moving into their areas. It sounds like a corrupt and corrupting industry. Something's got to give. But Das Williams keeps getting elected. Reminds me of the saying, "Be careful what you wish for", in regards to decriminalization of pot.

a-1680127232 Mar 29, 2023 03:00 PM
California’s Billion-Dollar Weed Boondoggle

It doesn't matter how long the wineries have been there, they have to share the SYV with other types of agriculture. Being there first means nothing.

Red Creek Mar 29, 2023 02:14 PM
California’s Billion-Dollar Weed Boondoggle

858 -A lot of "what about isms in your reply. Wine growers are being affected and that's a fact. Many have been there 50 years (La Fond comes to mind). Enjoying pot, comparisons to pesticide use, violence in alcohol use etc etc doesn't change the fact that the corporate pot "move-ins" are hurting a long standing local industry.

a-1680121858 Mar 29, 2023 01:30 PM
California’s Billion-Dollar Weed Boondoggle

There are over 120 wineries in Santa Ynez Valley and many of them corporately owned but you're worried about a few "corporate" marijuana grows? How is growing marijuana more corrupt than creating alcoholic beverages? A lot more pesticides are involved with growing grapes than with grow marijuana, causing more damage to the environment and to the well-being of nearby residents. Alcohol is also much more damaging to the human body than marijuana. I've enjoyed weed for many years as a way to relieve stress and to relax but I've never seen anyone high on it getting violent. Not ever. I have seen numerous drunken fights downtown around the bars though. Why do you suppose that would be? Lastly, the vast majority of DUI crashes and arrests are caused by drivers impaired by alcohol not marijuana, resulting in far, far more alcohol related deaths. It's really not even close when you compare the two.

a-1680038280 Mar 28, 2023 02:18 PM
California’s Billion-Dollar Weed Boondoggle

I saw this coming shortly after CA legalized pot (yes, thankfully). As I naively questioned my then College freshman about where he got his weed, "was it at the local dispensary off campus?" He laughed, looked at me smartly and said, c'mon Mom, we can't afford to buy it there.

Babycakes Mar 28, 2023 01:55 PM
California’s Billion-Dollar Weed Boondoggle

The main reason people voted to legalize the weed was to stop worrying about getting busted for having small amounts for personal consumption. A bud here, a bud there, a roach in the car ashtray, and so on. One of the expectations though is that people thought that the prices of the weed would come down.....didn't happen. Make friends with someone who grows their own and trade for a tray of lasagna, bag of avocados/oranges, and so on. Organic...who cares. Pesticide free....no concern. Low prices...that's what we want or barter for something. Many folks who are addicted to the weed simply don't realize they are addicted and have a problem (classic denial). Been getting high since you were a teen-ager and still at it is a good indicator. Keep your stash in a special container....maybe there's an issue. Friends give you MJ-related gifts for your b-day or Christmas....yeah, you are living the lifestyle. It's not always a problem in general, but at some point you gotta get tired of getting high just to cope with everyday life. Huff, puff, and glazed eyes...yep.

sacjon Mar 29, 2023 01:49 PM
California’s Billion-Dollar Weed Boondoggle

BABY - "The main reason people voted to legalize the weed was to stop worrying about getting busted for having small amounts for personal consumption" - nope, not at all. That you think that's why tells all we need to know. You should REALLY work harder to educate yourself and think a little before making your grand and false proclamations.

a-1680122527 Mar 29, 2023 01:42 PM
California’s Billion-Dollar Weed Boondoggle

You're totally wrong. Marijuana prices are much lower than they were before legalization. You can buy a quarter ounce of weed for $40-80 dollars now. Prior to legalization, that number was about $90-140 dollars.
Let's see what your take sounds like when we substitute alcohol for weed, shall we?
Many folks are addicted to alcohol and simply don't know it. Been drinking since you were a teenager and still at it is a good indicator. Keep your liquor in a special cabinet? Maybe there's an issue? Friends give you bottles of wine for your birthday or Christmas,..yeah you're living the lifestyle. It's not always a problem but at some point you gotta get tired of drinking just to cope with everyday life.
Keep trying to demonize it. You're just living in the past. Educate yourself.

IcherishSB Mar 28, 2023 10:20 AM
California’s Billion-Dollar Weed Boondoggle

Let me spell out the obvious we all are too shocked to admit. Das Williams hurt our county while pushing an agenda that filled his own pockets. He has no integrity and does not deserve to hold this position.
Das Williams needs to own up to his Macheavellian approach of taking financial care of himself first and foremost under greed driven, ill advised and destructive deeds necessary and with no regard for our Santa Barbara county. Das Williams needs to resign!

Chainsaw Don Mar 28, 2023 07:45 AM
California’s Billion-Dollar Weed Boondoggle

Having all these pot farms next to a high school is a crime. There is no excuse for this. I cannot believe we put up with this. I believe it’s time to clean house.

FondofSB Mar 27, 2023 03:47 PM
California’s Billion-Dollar Weed Boondoggle

"Williams has adopted a Trumpian modus operandi".
This kind of cheap, reducing and totally unnecessary comment disqualifies your whole article.
I stopped reading at that point.

CoastWatch Mar 27, 2023 03:10 PM
California’s Billion-Dollar Weed Boondoggle

Excellent article and there is no one to blame but our CA political "Representatives"- From Sacramento all the way down to "Das and Steve", who together literally destroyed our beautiful agricultural lands by selling out to Pot INC. What a legacy those two political CLOWNS are to our County. Shame on them. Local families will be dealing with the ramifications of their "no bite" policies and (non) ordinances for generations.
What could have been a controlled and moderated agricultural product is now an uncontrolled monster that is here to stay.

Stray Mar 27, 2023 05:20 PM
California’s Billion-Dollar Weed Boondoggle

Remember those floral scents that wafted in Carpinteria when flowers were grown in Carpinteria greenhouses? Who would have imagined a future with skunk weed stink the crop instead. Can one or two people make a difference in government? Yes, Williams and Lavagnino certainly prove that the wrong people can make a difference. The Democratic Party machine has to do a much better job in vetting candidates they endorse than the job they did when they endorsed Williams for First District Supervisor. Unless folks want to recall him sooner, we're stuck with Williams until we vote him out of office in November 2024. Lavagnino says he won't run for office again, but we're stuck with him through 2026. Meanwhile, all the imagined revenues flowing into the Treasurer's Office are dwindling, thanks to trusting growers to self-report their sales and compute their taxes owed. This time too shall pass, but not fast enough IMHO.

Basicinfo805 Mar 27, 2023 01:08 PM
California’s Billion-Dollar Weed Boondoggle

How do we get rid of it here? Or at least scale it WAY back so Carp isn’t the Cannibas capital of the west? Please don’t re elect Das, people, unless you want more of the same. He’s proven himself. That’s one option, or perhaps the basic economic principle of supply and demand will be allowed to take over without the state (= us, the taxpayers) propping up the big growers. Either way it may be a while before the mess is resolved.

Chip of SB Mar 27, 2023 11:42 AM
California’s Billion-Dollar Weed Boondoggle

Legalized marijuana is a bit of a combination of idiocracy and the body snatchers. We have “farmacies” popping up all over the place and people setting up grow operations everywhere to propagate the plant that is consuming our society and expand the consumer base. Every day more and more intelligent and productive people are brought down to the lowest common denominator in a cloud of smoke. It truly is the manifestation of a dystopian vision of how our society would degenerate.

ChillinGrillin Mar 28, 2023 12:22 PM
California’s Billion-Dollar Weed Boondoggle

President Dump didn't touch a single thing and he's a raving lunatic. Obama smoked loud with a "Choom Gang" and was a far better leader, the least corruption and nepotism of any modern administration.

sacjon Mar 28, 2023 11:09 AM
California’s Billion-Dollar Weed Boondoggle

LCP - cool anecdote. I know 3 former astronauts, 7 successful tech business owners, 3 government hired computer hackers, 2 biochemists, 1 jazz singer and 11 professional athletes that ALL use cannabis regularly. So....... see?

sacjon Mar 28, 2023 11:04 AM
California’s Billion-Dollar Weed Boondoggle

CHIP - "more and more intelligent and productive people are brought down to the lowest common denominator in a cloud of smoke" - the dumbest people I've ever met have never even touched cannabis. To say people who use cannabis become less intelligent and productive is flat out unintelligent in itself. You'd be amazed how many highly educated, motived, successful people use it regularly.

LCP112233 Mar 28, 2023 11:03 AM
California’s Billion-Dollar Weed Boondoggle

I have known many users over the decades and mistakenly hired a few which are not working for me anymore. They all have one thing in common laziness and easily angered.

ChillinGrillin Mar 28, 2023 10:48 AM
California’s Billion-Dollar Weed Boondoggle

Chip--Do you know any people who use marijuana? I know a local business owner, engineer and college professor who are all sharp and thriving in their careers. Everyone has different reactions to drugs, and the stereotype of weed users as lazy blobs is outdated and unrealistic. Moving away from the realm of silly stereotypes to that of empirical evidence, various studies directly connect legalized weed with lower rates of opioid abuse and overdose. Weed has proven benefits for many people dealing with chronic pain, melanoma, seizures, PTSD, and a variety of other conditions. Like all drugs, there are downsides and side effects but banning it only leads to an untaxed black market and cutting corners in terms of quality and pesticides.

NotReallyDave Mar 27, 2023 10:45 PM
California’s Billion-Dollar Weed Boondoggle

Another idiotic decision by the "regulators" was the allowance of the pot place on upper State Street to use "parking spaces" at the Earl Warren Showgrounds! Folks, that is multiple blocks away from the weed dispensary. All of these pot farms have been permitted to some degree and are allowed to produce the stink that is unbearable to people in the surrounding areas. 'Did you know' that the City of Santa Barbara allows a very stinky business to operate illegally within the City? Questionable.

OGSB Mar 27, 2023 07:03 PM
California’s Billion-Dollar Weed Boondoggle

Chip- Love that song! Plus my room IS clean, I work EVERY day and my kids ALWAYS get picked up from school! Just don't hit up the garage around midnight!

Chip of SB Mar 27, 2023 04:12 PM
California’s Billion-Dollar Weed Boondoggle

I was gonna clean my room, but then I got high. I was gonna go to work, but then I got high. I was gonna pick my kids up from school, but then I got high.....

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=WeYsTmIzjkw

Channelfog Mar 27, 2023 10:43 AM
California’s Billion-Dollar Weed Boondoggle

This is all a product of Nixons War on Drugs, which has cost countless lives worldwide. Total decriminalization of drugs removes the profit incentive, and frees enforcement funds for creating jobs, education and counseling. Imagine!
Or...we can continue with gangs etc.

a-1680017642 Mar 28, 2023 08:34 AM
California’s Billion-Dollar Weed Boondoggle

'I can't believe they'd build the infrastructure to grow, manufacture, and distribute a product we voted and supported the legalization and decriminalization of. We can't be expected to foresee the very foreseeable negative consequences of what we voted for and supported' - typical liberal NIMBYism.

a-1680009585 Mar 28, 2023 06:19 AM
California’s Billion-Dollar Weed Boondoggle

Did you comprehend the article? The author does NOT complain about " legalized cannabis use," as you state.

"Let me state the obligatory caveat: A majority of Californians—myself included—voted for and support the legalization and decriminalization of cannabis use. Amen.
But no one voted for the installation of industrial-sized massive grows of marijuana in vented greenhouses or open fields with no mandatory odor and air-quality controls, no acreage or license limits—and enforcement at about zip."

js7853 Mar 27, 2023 08:58 PM
California’s Billion-Dollar Weed Boondoggle

I'm not so sure that this is a result of Nixon's war on drugs as much as it is the results of decay in society. Sure, a lot of money was spent on enforcement and incarceration, but would society have been any better off with legalized drug use? All that legalized weed use is doing is creating a less healthy, dumber society. Are we any better off for having legalized weed? No, not at all! The author complains about legalized cannabis use, but she voted for it. Legalized cannabis just goes to show that California's electorate, in general, isn't particularly bright, and the state's referendum process is an abject failure.

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