Whether cannabis is a crop or a drug may determine which option Santa Barbara County supervisors choose to allow cultivation on agricultural preserve lands when they consider a number of cannabis regulations Tuesday.
One option would restrict the crop to a small percentage of a site, while the other would not impose a limit.
Other cannabis issues to be considered include an ordinance establishing licenses for cultivation, possession, manufacturing, distribution, processing, storage, laboratory testing, packaging, labeling, transportation, delivery and retail sales for both medical and recreational uses.
Supervisors also will consider several options for capping the amount of cannabis cultivation after already indicating an intent to limit the number of retail cannabis licenses to eight countywide, with a maximum of two per supervisorial district.
For board members as well as county residents, a fundamental question about cannabis has been whether it should be treated the same as any recognized agricultural crop or as a manufactured product because it’s classified as a controlled substance by the federal government.
How it’s viewed by supervisors will affect the way they craft amendments to the county’s Uniform Rules, which establish eligibility requirements and compatible uses for lands in agricultural preserve status.
“Cannabis is similar in certain ways to other uses that are currently considered to be either qualifying or compatible uses pursuant to the Uniform Rules,” said supervising planner Mindy Fogg in a report to the board.
“For example, cannabis cultivation involves the growing of plants similar to crop production that may count towards the minimum cultivation requirements of the Uniform Rules.”
She noted cannabis requires a certain amount of preparation — trimming and drying — like some other crops, as well as processing similar to turning grapes into wine.
“However, cannabis differs from many of the uses that are currently considered to be qualifying or compatible uses pursuant to the Uniform Rules,” Fogg continued.
“For example, cannabis is a highly regulated, illegal controlled substance under federal law, the cultivation of which presents security and law enforcement challenges that generally do not apply to other types of crop production.”
Fogg added that cannabis cultivation also creates odors many people find more objectionable than those produced by other crops.
Thus, the options for regulating cannabis cultivation on ag preserves span a wide spectrum, depending on how it’s viewed.
Those options range from allowing it without restriction as an eligible crop for meeting the minimum agricultural preserve acreage to banning it altogether as a use that’s incompatible with an ag preserve.
But two more “middle of the road” options are being presented as the best balance between the objectives of the Cannabis Land Use and Licensing Program and the provisions of the Uniform Rules.
One recommended by the Agricultural Preserve Advisory Committee would specify cannabis is a compatible use on ag preserve land but not qualified to count toward acreage requirements.
On ag preserves with prime and nonprime soils, cannabis cultivation and support facilities would be allowed, but those located outside the development envelope — where such facilities as houses and roads are located — would be limited to 5 percent of the premises or 5 acres, whichever is less.
On preserves with superprime soil, all cultivation and support facilities would have to be located inside the development envelope.
While manufacturing, retail sales, testing and marketing of cannabis and its products would be prohibited on Williamson Act land, up to 49 percent of the cannabis processed, extracted and distributed could be grown elsewhere.
Fogg said that approach would substantially limit the area where cannabis operations could take place, displace existing medical cannabis operations and lead to the permanent conversion of ag land to other uses.
Instead, the staff is recommending an alternative from the County Planning and Development Department staff that would be less restrictive.
Like the first option, the department’s plan would specify that cultivation and support facilities are compatible but not qualifying uses on ag preserves and would allow up to 49 percent of the cannabis processed, distributed and extracted to be grown off-site.
It would prohibit retail sales and marketing of cannabis and its products on Williamson Act lands, but would not restrict the amount of cultivation allowed as long as minimum acreage is met by other crops.
As for capping cannabis cultivation, three regulatory options are presented by the staff, but the recommendation is to allow the market to regulate itself through supply, demand and wholesale pricing.
Regulatory caps could have significant consequences, according to a report from Dennis Bozanich, deputy county executive officer.
“One major consequence is that it creates an artificial shortage that is likely to affect business decisions, particularly as the number of licenses come close to reaching the cap,” Bozanich said.
“Some operators may choose to ‘hoard’ licenses to either keep their future growth options open or to prevent competition from being able to attain a license.”
Bozanich said that could mean a licensed operation would not be put into production, which would reduce the county’s potential tax revenues.
The supervisors will meet at 9 a.m. in the Board Hearing Room on the fourth floor of the County Administration Building at 105 E. Anapamu St. in Santa Barbara.
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