Earlier this month, Barney Melekian, Santa Barbara County’s former assistant executive officer for public safety, left his County job to become interim police chief for the City of Santa Barbara, replacing retiring Chief Lori Luhnow. One of Melekian’s key roles for the county was overseeing enforcement of the county’s legal cannabis industry.
Replacing Melekian in a new and expanded position on cannabis enforcement is Brittany Heaton, a longtime County employee and a civil engineer by trade, who is now the County of Santa Barbara’s Principal Cannabis Analyst, or as the Montecito Journal would have it, our “Cannabis Czar.” This Monday, Heaton sat down for an extensive interview with the Journal about the nature of her new title and gig, which she was quick to clarify.
Q: Thanks for taking the time to speak with us. So what exactly is your role with regard to cannabis policy and enforcement in Santa Barbara County?
A: Well, I’m certainly not the cannabis czar. The position that was created for me after Barney Melekian left is a principal analyst position working exclusively on cannabis. I work with a team of people in several departments: the sheriff’s department, Planning and Development, Agricultural Services, and Environmental Health. I’m really here to support the team and coordinate the efforts around permitting and licensing of cannabis operations and to smooth out some of the bumps. We are in the third year of trying to make this work and I see myself as a liaison and coordinator and not over everything. I don’t do it all. Several people have been working on this from the beginning and I’m leaning on them quite a bit. I’m just one month into the job.
Can you tell us a little bit about your background and what led you to this position?
I grew up in Minneapolis and went to Northwestern University and have a degree in civil engineering. After college, I did work in Morocco in the Peace Corps, where I met my husband, who is from California and went to UC Santa Barbara. We worked in a rural community and I was doing basic health and sanitation, community-based development, building latrines and creating systems for running water. I really enjoy working with communities and people to solve problems.
I came back and went to grad school to study more community planning and development. My husband and I have lived in Santa Barbara for the past 14 years. I’ve been working for the County for almost nine years now. I started in the Public Works Department’s transportation division and served as the programs manager in a similar role. So when I saw this opportunity arise, I thought it was an intriguing opportunity, something exciting and challenging. I was at a point in my career where I was ready for something new. Since I’m new, my learning curve is pretty steep, but I’ve learned a lot already.
What have you learned so far?
I’ve learned that there are several different stakeholders involved in this industry. There is a large coordination effort around the County’s cannabis ordinance and (people) listening to the community and getting the ordinance right. We recognize it’s still not perfect, and we want to put something together to have a playbook for everyone to refer to and get it right. As we work our way through this process, we are listening to the community and making adjustments. We have just made some significant changes to the ordinance and we will come back in several months with some additional amendments. The changes we have made so far are adding more clarifications.
Can you elaborate on that?
Sure. Because we are taxing cannabis grows based on gross receipts, this relies on operators actually reporting their gross receipts. There were some misunderstandings, such as operators who were still setting up and didn’t have receipts yet who thought they didn’t have to report. We have made that clear that they must report whether they have zero gross receipts or not. The sheriff’s office spent time making changes to the requirements for employee background checks and making sure all employees had proper identification.
But the most significant change we made was to require that operators who are getting their land use permits and business licenses have their site plans and security plans in place for their actual locations. Applicants must have an approved premise diagram, a site plan approved by planning and development and a site security plan approved by the sheriff’s office. Those are critical pieces for us because they show where the operations occur on the property and how they are secured. That’s going to make things run a lot more smoothly and ensure that what applicants say they are going to do is what they are going to do. The more we can have quality control through the permitting process the better off we’ll all be.
What exactly is the County’s cannabis plan? How has it evolved since voters favored Prop. 64 and recreational use legalization in 2016?
As I said, the plan is to take this industry that is legal and put the proper ordinances and codes in place so that it can operate successfully in our county. We have put in place caps on acreage. There are two caps. In the Carpinteria agricultural overlay district, it’s 186 acres and in the remaining unincorporated area of the county, the total cap on acreage is 1,575 acres. We need to allow the industry to operate successfully but also be able to identify when it’s not doing so and root out those operators who are not following the rules. My goal is to make this work for everyone.
How is the County’s cannabis plan compatible with the major economic interests already embedded here: tourism, agriculture, wine growing, and tasting?
I think the County takes seriously all economic interests. There are major changes happening in the county relating to cannabis. We are working through it case by case. I know that there was a major grow approved for the Santa Rita Hills area that has been appealed, and that process needs to be followed on a case-by-case basis. I think studies are being done on both sides, and while outdoor grows are tricky when it comes to odor and there are studies on both sides of that coin, odor control technology is constantly changing, and we are taking a look at all this. Most operators want to be good neighbors, and we’re working on weeding out the ones who aren’t.
What can you say about the ongoing concerns in Carpinteria over odor and other nuisance issues, especially along Foothill Road and Santa Claus Lane?
Well, that is the area where we are receiving most of our complaints. Back on December 15, we did our first quarterly report for this fiscal year and we received 112 cannabis odor complaints in Carpinteria during that period. We are aware that’s a hot spot for odor. Anyone who drives through there can smell cannabis. Almost all of those odor complaints originate from unpermitted, non-conforming grows. We are working with all of those grows to get them through the licensing process. Once they are through the process, then we have the ability to enforce it.
How much money is the cannabis industry currently bringing to Santa Barbara County per year?
In the 2018 to 2019 fiscal year, we brought $6.8 million to our general fund. In 2019 to 2020, that number was $12.2 million. In our first quarterly report for 2021, which was July thru September, we brought in $4.2 million. During the second quarter, it looks like that number will be $2.5 million. Typically, the numbers for the second and third quarters tend to drop a little bit because of the seasonal variation of the grows. But our projection for this year is a total of $16 million.
So in other words, cannabis has become the second largest generator of funds in Santa Barbara County’s general fund, after property taxes. That is the good news part of this whole thing. That money gets used to go into staffing for cannabis enforcement and helps us do this right. So far, despite some problems that we’re working on, I think the county is doing a good job and I really believe in my team.