In a sandy ravine in the Santa Rita Hills, a cannabis company plans to erect greenhouses on more than 147 acres (the size of 130 football fields) to create the largest legal marijuana crop on earth.
Across the Santa Inez River, two miles away, a farmer is planting the second largest crop on the planet, on 83 acres. Several businesses are already as big as the world's other giants, in Colorado and British Columbia, industry insiders say, while a dozen more have plans to get even bigger.
Santa Barbara County's famous wine country with its gigantic oak trees and tasting rooms, and Carpentaria, the sleepy seaside town, has become the unlikely capital of California's legal cannabis market.
Pressured by the cannabis industry, Santa Barbara County officials have opened the door to big business over the past two years like no other county in the country. This triggered a wave of cultivation - largely unregulated - in a region previously unknown for harvesting. County supervisors voted not to limit the size and amount of marijuana planted there, opting not to investigate growers' license applications or conduct site inspections.
They also decided to tax operations based on gross revenue rather than licensed square footage, as Humboldt and Monterey counties do, even though the county does not have a
method for verifying the numbers. So far, the county received a fraction of what its consultants had predicted.
Santa Barbara officials are not the only ones trying to attract cannabis cultivation. But other local governments seeking this revenue stream are mostly in remote and economically depressed regions, not high-value coastal and tourist areas.
In dispensary Santa barbara, growers and their hired activists developed close ties with two county supervisors, Das Williams and Steve Lavagnino, who pushed for and won almost every significant measure that growers requested. A third supervisor elected in November, Gregg Hart, hired a marijuana lobbyist as his chief of staff.
The cannabis boom has sparked a backlash from residents and wine growers, affected by the smell, and from farmers, who fear that spraying their avocados could make them financially responsible for contaminating millionaire marijuana crops. Fearing for their businesses and their quality of life, they have organized with activist groups, hired lawyers filed lawsuits and zoning appeals.
The official envisions that the county will foster a lawful industry, pay its taxes, and solve problems affecting its neighbors. He admitted that the board's actions helped create a “wild west type situation, which we are now rearranging. Our community is painfully divided on how to control this industry, ”he added.
At the southern end of the county, in Carpintería, the stale smell of marijuana seeps through the vents of steel greenhouses that floriculture has used for decades. According to residents, the irritating aroma makes eyes water and causes choking. Some complaints of headaches and nausea.
Casey Adams, 61, who has taught Woodworking High School for 33 years, commented that the smell comes and goes. It's worse in the morning, he insisted, and it doesn't seem to have changed much with the control systems. "Every day we have a sore throat," he said.
The county mandated that growers in the Carpinteria Valley, which sits on unincorporated land surrounding the city, install odor control systems as part of their land use permits, and although the rule has not gone into effect At least 12 of the 23 facilities have, according to officials. But it is difficult to determine how much of the aroma is contained or neutralized.
Joan Esposito, 76, lives in front of a greenhouse and says that the smell still "permeates everything."
No odor control systems are required outside of Carpintería, in the more rural wine region.
In the valleys of Santa Ynez and Santa María, the aroma of marijuana can overwhelm the wine tasting rooms when the wind blows in that direction, while vast rows of polyethylene booths disturb the pastoral landscape and thus threaten the economy - dependent on the wine. tourism- of one of the main wine-growing areas, known to many for being the setting for the 2004 film “Sideways”.
"The skunk-like smell is a deterrent to other animals and humans," said Tyler Thomas, a Dierberg winemaker, who sits on a patch of land surrounded by 230 acres that are in the process of obtaining permits to grow marijuana. "We don't want to discourage people who come to our tasting room."
Farmers closest to cannabis realized that they can no longer spray pesticides without fear of being responsible for contaminating that neighboring plantation. By law, marijuana must be destroyed if it tests positive for pesticides.
"The pesticide levels set for cannabis are extremely low," explained Rick Shade, who manages 600 acres of avocado trees in the Carpintería Valley.
The marijuana growers agreed to sign a contract not to hold farmers responsible for their crops if they sprayed them for a specified period of time. Yet last month, cash crop growers decided they didn't want to take the risk.