By KAREN VELIE
Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of articles about how high-end investors, small marijuana growers and fortune hunters are battling for a place in California’s new gold/green rush.
With billions at stake in San Luis Obispo County’s emerging marijuana industry, questions have been raised about allegations of backroom deals, threats, lawlessness and unequal law enforcement.
One needs to look no farther than San Luis Obispo’s first marijuana festival in July, to see growers and vendors failing to follow county, state and federal laws regarding events and marijuana sales. Hundreds of people attended and were able to purchase or sample marijuana and marijuana products.
While marijuana is legal under state law, there are requirements for events including permits and following marijuana laws. For example, while medical marijuana is legal, it is not legal to sell pot at festivals.
At last month’s SLO Cup, dozens of vendors sold marijuana and edibles such as THC laced gummy bears and brownies. Other vendors provided free samples of dabs and pot for signing up with their collectives.
Some vendors listed their prices as donations, required as a payment for the product.
Several of the vendors said that county staffers are willing to look the other way when marijuana is involved and that laws are not being enforced.
“If the county is willing to look the other way, why should we comply with the rules,” said Austen Connella, a vendor at the SLO Cup.
Grower Nicholas Pitchon is permitted to have 30 plants at a property he leases in Avila Beach where the event was held. But there were about 100 plants for sale at the festival. During the festival, Pitchon kept his grow under tarps and surrounded by barbed wire.
While San Luis Obispo County Supervisors Adam Hill and Bruce Gibson want to promote the county as a marijuana destination spot, others argue it could damage the county’s tourism industry. While vineyard and winery events are designed to be easily accessible, several booths at the festival were guarded by multiple pit bulls.
While several vendors cleaned the mouthpieces of the bongs people used to sample marijuana products, others had dozens of people drawing smoke from the mouthpiece of the same uncleaned bong.
In the music area, members of a band threw product items, including THC-laced candy, to a crowd that had families and toddlers.
Prior to the event, Art Trinidade, county code enforcement supervisor, said the county was not going to require a minor use permit because the event was a free event hosted by a nonprofit, SLO NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws).
However, several members of SLO NORML said that while several of their members, Nicolas Pitchon, Jason Kallen and Matt O’Connor, were hosting the event, the nonprofit was not.
In addition, Pitchon and O’Conner were selling tickets on Event Bright. The cost of the tickets ran from $20 to $250, the higher amount for those who wanted to judge the marijuana contest entries.
Before the event, Pitchon told CalCoastTimes he was no longer charging for people to attend the event and that he would return any money he had collected.
“We are no longer charging for tickets,” Pitchon said. “It is a free event.”
The day before the event, Event Bright stopped charging for tickets. However, on the morning of the event, the promoters sent people who received free ticket an email requiring a $20 donation at the door for entry and $5 for parking.
Vendors told reporters that they were charged $150 to rent one of the 59 booth spaces.
During the July 22 event, it appeared there were no uniformed law enforcement officers at the scene. However, several county officials said there were undercover officers who bought illegally sold marijuana and who wore video cameras.
“The deputies took video at the event,” Trinidade said. “I warned Jason and Niko that any violation would reflect poorly on future applications and could on current permits.”
The sheriff’s department is planning on initiating actions against some of the vendors who illegally sold marijuana at the event, Trinidade said.
At the front of the festival, Chris Matthews hosted a booth that provided free samples to attendees with medical marijuana medical cards who agreed to join his collective, SLO Compassionate care. Matthews said that if officers attempt to charge people who provided samples at the event, the vendors will likely win in court.
“If any of these people go to court, this criminal investigation will get tossed,” Matthews said.