There was a time when catching a whiff of marijuana at a high school meant that some of the students had just burned one before coming to class. But now, in California, where marijuana is being grown to meet the ravenous demand that is destined to come from the launch of the state’s fully legal recreational market later next year, school officials are complaining that all their school smells like weed—and not because of the students.
Earlier this week, a news segment from CBS-affiliate KCOY-TV suggested that that the pungent, “skunky” odor of the legal marijuana growing in nearby greenhouses has consumed much of the atmosphere at Carpinteria High School in Santa Barbara County. This has some members of the faculty concerned that these operations might be threatening the overall health of the students. Others worry that the aroma could tickle their teenage noses and tempt them to use marijuana for the first time.
“To have marijuana smell come and be a temptation for them, and it could be a trigger for them, and it is unfortunate that that is something we have to worry about,” David Pennington, a member of the school’s after-hours support staff, told the news source.
Legal marijuana is now being grown “under glass” on about 30 acres in the small community of Carpinteria. The odor permeating from these greenhouses, which gets stronger as the cannabis plants reach maturity, has been a hot topic of discussion around town for the past several months. A report published over the summer by the Santa Barbara Independent suggests that the bulk of the noise surrounding the odor issue is being generated by a small group of women connected to the Carpinteria Valley Association (CVA)—an organization dedicated to “protecting the beauty and natural resources” of the valley.
Mike Wondolowski, president of the CVA, told that the odor problem began last year when residents noticed an apparent increase in the skunk population. Although he says the CVA takes no position on the subject of marijuana legalization, the consensus is that the cannabis grows are far too pervasive for such a small community.
“It’s not just an annoying nuisance odor,” he said. “Many residents have reported adverse physical reactions—coughing, sneezing, watering eyes and headaches. I’ve personally experienced all of that at my house, which isn’t even terribly close to the nearest known operating greenhouse.”
At Carpinteria High School, the situation is much worse than in other parts of the town, as the campus is located in close proximity to the grow houses, Wondolowski explained.
“When the staff arrives in the morning, the building is just filled with the odor,” he said. “It’s very overwhelming. They have to air out the building before the students arrive, so they can concentrate at school. And that’s just crazy.”
Although a number of odor complaints have been filed against the valley’s 52 known marijuana grow operations, town officials are having trouble when it comes to enforcement. In order for them to crack down on the culprits, they would need a definitive address of the facility(s) creating the nuisance—a feat that has, so far, been next to impossible.
“We have no idea where the odors are coming from,” Wondolowski said,
The real problem, in this case, is not necessarily due to the uncivil nature of the cannabis growers—it’s more to do with the county’s lack of a permitting structure for marijuana agriculture. Although the county does have regulations in place pertaining to the development of greenhouses in the valley, there is no specific language touching on cannabis operations.
So, with no rules, many pot growers are left to operate in gray areas.
In other legal states, odor issues stemming from the large-scale cultivation of cannabis plants are often handled through the installation of carbon scrubbers and air filtration systems. But most growers in Carpinteria Valley have been reluctant to make such a huge investment (up to $100,000) until county officials determine whether they will be allowed to continue growing next year once the local pot ordinance is put into place.
It’s really a catch-22 situation.
Even if the local cannabis farmers wanted to, right now, install filtration systems on these greenhouse properties, some of the county’s older regulations would prevent them from making the essential upgrades, such as heavy-duty electrical systems strong enough to run this technology.
Unfortunately, the situation is not about to change until the leading brass of Santa Barbara County completes its marijuana regulations, which insiders say is on target for February 2018.
The Cannabis Business Council of Santa Barbara County, which represents area cannabis farmers, says it is in favor of cleaning up the air by getting its growers to install filtration systems.
Mollie Culver, a consultant to the Council, says the remedy is right around the corner.
“We have worked closely with the County in developing an ordinance that will require odor abatement in proximity to special sensitive facilities such as schools,” she told in a statement. “As an industry, we look forward to being good neighbors and working with our community to implement best management practices in agriculture.”
But if the proposed air-treatment technology comes with the price of unwanted industrial noise, Wondolowski says that’s not going to work for the folks of Carpinteria Valley.
“If the way odor and air quality is handled is by installing large HVAC or scrubbing machines or filtration machines, whatever it is, if those are loud and industrial sounding, and that’s our trade-off for not having an odor, that’s not terribly desirable,” he said. “If filtering, scrubbing, or whatever, meets the necessary criteria, great, we don’t care how you do it. It’s just got to be done. That’s our message to the county.”
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