While local leaders are mapping out ways to support and regulate licensed grows – law enforcement and prosecutors are overwhelmed with the number of illegal grows.
The Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Cannabis Compliance Team got its start in June of 2018.
Its first goal was to catch unlicensed growers, but now there is a bigger issue not only with the number illegal grows but also with fake licenses.
This past June, the sheriff’s office says it seized more than 20 tons of illegal cannabis products.
“We anticipated that there would be a large number of purely illegal grows but we did not really understand how large the problem was,” said John Savrnoch, Santa Barbara County chief deputy district attorney.
Cannabis crops in Santa Barbara County are popping up like weeds and authorities say many of these grows are illegal.
“If we are not on an actual eradication, we are in the case preparation for the eradication of an illegal grow,” said Lieutenant Greg Sanders, the Santa Barbara County Compliance Team supervisor.
Sanders and his compliance team investigate odor complaints then obtain search warrants and raid illegal grows.
In the last year alone, the team made nearly 30 busts totaling more than 1 million plants.
They often find illegal grows near neighborhoods just like a recent raid outside the Buellton city limits.
Cannabis Compliance Team Seizes 20 Tons of Illegal Cannabis and Eradicates Approximately 350,000 Cannabis Plants
— SB Sheriff's Office (@sbsheriff) June 22, 2019
“Just to get a handle on the people who are growing purely illegally, that have no permits, no licenses, or any county or state authorization to grow. There are more cases then we can handle,“ officials said.
That may be in part because of the Cannabis Compliance Team’s size.
Six sheriff’s deputies make up the compliance team.
They work closely with a staff of more than 20 county employees who process permits and keep close tabs on licensing to see which growers are cutting corners.
“The spirit behind the whole is that if they go through the proper licensing process, that includes getting the state, the local permits, but that also includes a business license,” said Lieutenant Sanders. “The problem is when the growers try to circumvent or shortcut these established guidelines. That gets them in trouble and gets law enforcement involved.”
Under California law, anyone 21 or older can grow up to six personal plants, but anything more than that requires a permit.
However, prosecutors say the rate of illegal growers is increasing faster than they can keep track of because the law is too lenient.
“Most of these cases regardless of size are by law misdemeanors,” Savrnoch said. “They are misdemeanors unless certain factors are met such as if the person has serious or violent felonies, if they commit multiple offenses of the same crime or if there is an intent to distribute marijuana.”
So far, the DA’s office has filed charges in nine cases, one case resulted in a felony, a second in a misdemeanor. The rest are still pending. None have gone to trial.
“I don’t know if it’s a matter of stricter punishment or clearer punishment or stricter licensing but there needs to be something done to discourage people,” Savrnoch said.
But in some of the cases, growers are never found nor charged.
“Because there are not felony consequences that there is an incentive to re-offend, a large incentive to re-offend,” said Savrnoch. “We have not yet seen that.”
According to the 2018/2019 budget summary, the county is expected to generate about $5.7 million in cannabis tax. It spent less than that on the Cannabis Compliance Team.
The County plans to add four more cannabis permit staff next fiscal year, but as the Cannabis Compliance Team and support staff grow, so too do these illegal crops.
It may seem like they are fighting an uphill battle.
Growers who lie on their cannabis cultivation permit can face steeper fines and possible jail time for perjury.
The Cannabis Compliance Team also partners with state agencies like Fish and Wildlife, The Bureau of Cannabis Control and other county agencies.
If you think illegal farming is happening in your neighborhood, you are encouraged to contact the sheriff’s office at an anonymous tip line at (805)-681-4171.