In this seaside town, readers of the local paper recently came upon a curious photo: the school district superintendent and four administrators standing and smiling in a field of marijuana plants.
They were wearing caps with the logo of the grower’s brand, Glass House Farms.
People already critical of the explosion of marijuana cultivation in the area were outraged.
“The appalling poor judgment necessary for educators in a district leadership role to jointly agree to such a promotional stunt is unlike anything any of us has ever witnessed,” Lionel Neff, a retired toy company owner, told the school board at a meeting the following week.
The photo accompanied a story about the Carpinteria Unified School District accepting $189,000 from a cannabis growers association to hire a middle school mental health counselor. District Supt. Diana Rigby and school board President Andy Sheaffer did not respond to requests for comment.
For the last two years, pot has divided Carpinteria, as Santa Barbara County officials allowed the city to be surrounded by the densest concentration of cannabis farms in the nation. Residents complain the farms saturate their homes and children’s schools with the skunky smell the plant is famous for. Growers counter that they are providing jobs and paying taxes, while installing state-of-the-art odor control systems to mask the funk.
Now debate has turned to the influence the marijuana industry is wielding. Flush with capital from multimillion-dollar harvests, marijuana cultivators have become local philanthropists and political donors. While critics say their money is corrupting, growers say they are simply being good citizens.
“A lot of the cannabis farmers are longtime cut-flower farmers here, and the donations are clearly in line with what they’ve been doing for 30 years,” said Graham Farrar, owner of Glass House Farms and president of the industry association, CARP Growers, that made the donation to the middle school.
The cultivators worked the local levers of power like few others. They lured editors and reporters away from the local paper, Coastal View News, as their publicists. They became active in Rotary and Lions clubs, football and softball leagues, the arts center and the beloved Avocado Festival. They hosted a gala and auction in September for Girls Inc., donating $50,000 up front and contributing much more during the bidding. The event, called “An Evening in Bloom,” raised $250,000 for the nonprofit.
They’ve been generous with politicians. At a fundraiser at a wine tasting room in March, growers donated $32,500 to Carpinteria’s county supervisor, Das Williams, who led the effort to make the county the state’s leader in legal cannabis production.
But the growers have a formidable opponent in a group of several hundred residents, Concerned Carpinterians, who are fighting the farmers’ permits and working to oust Williams in the 2020 election.
They say the growers are buying silence and inaction from the school district and county supervisors, who have the power to require pot farms to relocate farther from homes and schools and seal their facilities.
“We see the extreme proliferation of cannabis in Carpinteria, very high concentration of cannabis farms around schools and homes,” Gregory Gandrud, an accountant and former City Council member, told the school board after the photo was published. “There’s a very corrupting influence with the money.”
Late last year, CARP Growers was in discussions with the school district to donate $28,000 for the high school to buy science equipment. The deal fell apart when a school board member, Maureen Foley Claffey, objected to the district taking money from an industry that is still illegal under federal law.
Foley Claffey, who had a daughter in the first grade, also voiced personal concerns. The flower grower next to her house was now cultivating pot, and the smell was intense. A delivery driver, looking for the grower, got lost and came to her house trying to find the right address. He was delivering gun safes, she said.
“I couldn’t understand why my neighbor needed a gun safe, much less multiple gun safes,” she said.
In December, she read a story in Coastal View News about CARP Growers donating $1,200 for students to go on college tours; it included a photo of Farrar and two other growers holding a ceremonial oversize check. But the board agenda item to approve the gift said the donation had come from the Rotary Club. Foley Claffey made the board amend the agenda to acknowledge on the record that, regardless of who wrote the final check, the money came from the growers.
Shortly thereafter, a former board member launched a recall petition against Foley Claffey, and pro-cannabis people began promoting it on the NextDoor app. Saying she felt threatened, she resigned in April. Foley Claffey, whose family first settled in the area in 1863, moved out of the district in the fall.
“I feel even more strongly now that the industry has co-opted the school district,” she said. “These are multinational interests behind these grows. They don’t care about residents and students.”
In August, Supt. Rigby reached out to the growers to seek funding for a middle school mental health counselor. CARP Growers agreed to pay $63,000 for three years. Only one board member, Rogelio Delgado, voted against it.
Rigby, three school principals and another administrator agreed to tour Farrar’s farm. “I showed them the beneficial insects we use, the recapturing of the water,” Farrar recalled. He handed them free caps, he said, and asked to take a photo to accompany the news release about the donation.
For critics, the biggest point of contention is the four grows that sit within 1,000 feet of Carpinteria High School.
The teachers union conducted an anonymous survey of its members in October and found that many thought the smell at Carpinteria High School was disruptive. Eighty-three of 88 respondents had seen the photo of the officials in the pot farm, and 63 said they found it objectionable.
“This past week there has been a huge increase in the strong smell,” one teacher wrote. “Some teachers rooms are so full of the fumes one would [think] that someone is smoking in the class. I don’t support the CUSD board position and feel like the picture in the Coastal View sends a terrible message to our community/students. This is NOT a learning environment that I would allow my children to go to school in.”
The greenhouse complex closest to the high school is partially within the 750-foot buffer zone set by the county, but officials say the plants are not within that line. The property is owned by the father-in-law of a local elementary school principal, Jamie Persoon, who appeared in Farrar’s photo of the school officials.
Such is the intimacy of the town — with just 13,000 people — that has made the conflict personal to many. A number of greenhouses are owned by longtime flower cultivators here with deep ties in town. Old friends yell at each other at board meetings. Avocado growers who want to support their fellow farmers worry about losing their own crops; they don’t spray pesticides for fear they could be held liable for tainting a neighboring marijuana crop worth millions.
Carpinteria is beloved for its quality of life, with its small downtown and sheltered beach, surrounded by avocado and lemon groves, at the foot of the Santa Ynez Mountains. Some simply don’t want their little town to be known as the pot capital of California. Others have no problem; the smell is intermittent where they live, they say, and not that bad.
“I smell it, I don’t use it, and it doesn’t bother me,” said Jocelyn Jones, 50, owner of Sandcastle Time and Jewelry. “It’s natural.”
She said the industry provides jobs and brings in tax revenue; she thinks people who complain are overstating the nuisance.
“They were all the people who went against the greenhouses when they were growing flowers,” Jones said.
David Ross, 71, said he doesn’t live near the farms, but the smell and the growers’ influence bother him.
“Carpinteria is the type of small coastal town we don’t have much of anymore in California,” he said. “When [cannabis] turns it upside down, I don’t like that.”
The controversy has put Supervisor Williams on the defensive; he faces a serious challenger, Laura Capps, in his reelection bid in 2020. After the Concerned Carpinterians group publicized the campaign money he was taking from the cannabis industry — much of it under the names of obscure LLCs, not the names of the growers or their farms — he has vowed not to accept any more, though saying that he did nothing wrong and that his opponents made the issue a distraction.
On June 17, more than 200 people on both sides of the divide packed Carpinteria City Hall as the City Council debated the cannabis issue. City staff complained of the county’s “overly permissive” regulatory scheme. After a heated public comment period, the council passed a resolution asking the county to add residential properties to its list of “sensitive receptors” like parks and schools and expand the buffer zone between them and cannabis to 1,000 feet. The county did neither.
The school board has been mostly silent. A private boarding school, Cate School, has expressed disappointment that the bigger public school district would not join it to pressure the county to act.
“We currently have one grower operating in our buffer zone and we are fighting that grow vigorously, and it is surprising and shocking to us that no one from the Carpinteria school district is opposing the grow that is clearly inside the buffer zone of Carpinteria High School, or the four that really closely abut the school,” Charlotte Brownlee, assistant headmaster at Cate, told the Carpinteria board recently.
But some parents in the district are happy with the industry — and its spending.
“I’m overjoyed by a local company willing to support our students and district in such a major way,” said Jaime Diamond, who has two children in the district and one soon to be in kindergarten. “A picture is not going to send students flocking to dispensaries or drug dealers as some may have you believe.”