Santa Barbara's Controversial Straw Ban Kicked Back to Committee

The new ordinance is being amended to include plastic stirrers


Viktoriia Degtiarova/

Few straw ban bills have proven as controversial as the one being considered in Santa Barbara, California.

On July 17, a bill was introduced into the Santa Barbara City Council that would prohibit restaurants from giving their patrons single-use plastic straws. The proposed ordinance made every illicit straw handed out—save for the first straw—a violation of the municipal code, and empowered the city to levy fines or even bring criminal charges.

That July 17 meeting saw the bill discussed, and orally amended to include an exemption for disabled people, after which the city council voted 6-to-1 to place the straw ban bill on the "consent calendar" for the next meeting, meaning that it would be voted on the following week.

Voting to put something on the consent calendar typically suggests support for the underlying bill, so local media—including the Santa Barbara Independent, ABC affiliate KEYT, and local news website Noozhawk—reported the straw ban as passed.

When I wrote about the bill on July 19, I said it had passed as well. Operating off the text of the bill that the council had voted on—which did not include the orally-added disability exemption—I also said the bill did not include a carve out for disabled people.

Saying that the bill had passed was incorrect, as it required another, final vote before it officially became law. This falsehood might have been missed had it not been for two things.

Firstly, other outlets started picking up on my reporting, and saying, as I did, that the bill had been passed. This in turn sparked a wave of counter-reaction to Santa Barbara's still proposed straw ban, including segments on Fox News, countless straw ban memes, and a flood of outraged calls to the city government about the bill. People even started to mail straws to city hall in protest.

Secondly, on July 24, the Santa Barbara city council voted not to approve its straw ban as written, but rather to send it back to the council's Ordinance Committee so that plastic stirrers could be included in the ban.

"I can understand how folks would be asking for plastic cutlery in certain circumstances, but I cannot … understand why we need plastic stirrers," said Councilman Gregg Hart at that meeting.

The city also used the occasion of sending its straw ban back to committee to do some damage control. On July 26, the city issued a press release stating that a vote on the proposed ban was being delayed (while omitting any mention of the reason for the delay). This press release also stated that "jail time and fines are not proposed for anyone who uses a plastic straw or provides one to a customer."

The claim that jail time and fines are not part of Santa Barbara's straw ban as currently written is not true. As I explained in my initial post, by prohibiting the provision of plastic straws by food service businesses, the city council was giving the city government the power to pursue criminal charges against straw providers should it want to.

Bryan Latchford, Santa Barbara's outreach coordinator for environmental services, stressed to me that regardless of the potential penalties allowed by the bill, the city council had no intention of criminalizing scofflaw straw providers.

"The intention was never to issue fines or jail time," says Latchford, telling Reason that the drafting of the straw ban as an ordinary code violation—any violation of which is a misdemeanor by default—was a decision made by the Santa Barbara city attorney (who's tasked with writing up all ordinances in formal legal language) for reasons of expediency. In short, it was so outside Santa Barbara's intentions to fine or jail someone for straws, it was a waste of time to make that explicit in the text of the ordinance they were considering.

Latchford also cited the city's plastic bag ban and its prohibition on jaywalking as examples of things that are technically misdemeanors under the city's code, but which would never be charged as such. Santa Barbara's mayor, as well as a number of commenters, have made a similiar point to argue that the focus on the maximum penalties allowed for straw possession are misplaced, if not inaccurate.

The trouble with this line of reasoning is that laws, once passed, become separated from the intentions of those who voted for them.

Latchford's example of jaywalking speaks to this. I seriously doubt, for instance, that when nearby Los Angeles passed its jaywalking ordinance in 1925, the intention was to fine, arrest, and otherwise harass the city's homeless residents. Nevertheless, that is exactly what has played out, as Reason's Brian Doherty noted in his 2014 article "Petty Law Enforcement vs. the Poor."

More extreme one-off examples of jaywalking enforcement can be found as well. In 2017 Nandi Cain received a vicious beating from a Sacramento police officer after he was stopped for jaywalking. Something similar happened in Stockton, California in 2015, when nine officers hit, tackled, and then arrested a 16-year-old for jaywalking and resisting arrest. We shouldn't forget the fates of Eric Garner or Michael Brown, both killed by police after being stopped for selling loose cigarettes and jaywalking respectively.

Whether or not the Santa Barbara officials pushing a straw ban in 2018 want to see fines and jail time for violators does not change the fact that these penalties are still on the books, and could be used to harass, jail, and impoverrish residents and businesses should political will change.

Indeed, statements from Santa Barbara officials suggest that, while the city doesn't intend to seek the maximum penalties for its straw ban, it likes having them around for use in extreme, vaguely defined circumstances.

When I asked Santa Barbara Assistant City Attorney Scott Vincent about the potential penalties in the city's straw bill, he stressed that they would only be used in extreme circumstances. Latchford himself said told KEYT that "jail time or stiff fines are not the intent for first-time offenders," but that those penalties are included in the city's code as a last line of defense.

If the intention of Santa Barbara straw ban proponents is truly to never use the maximum penalties allowed by current text of its straw ban, then those maximum penalties should be removed. Otherwise, what is the argument for keeping them? If the intention is to only use these maximum penalties for the most egregious straw violators, city officials owe it to their constituents to explain what these circumstances might be.

The straw ban ordinance will not be picked up by the full council again until September, and Latchford tells me that there is a possibility the penalties in the bill will be amended or removed.

Doing so would demonstrate that Santa Barbara city officials' handwringing about how they would never try to fine or jail someone for handing out plastic straws to customers is more than just damage control.

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  1. Saying that the bill had passed was incorrect…

    When talking about straws, we have to be flexible.

    1. If you don’t like the law, suck it up.

      1. They don’t want you causing a stir.

        ALTERNATE JOKE: Break the law and end up in stir.

    2. This sucks all the way up!

      1. It’s the last straw!

    3. But think of all the camels’ backs we will save.

  2. It’s almost as if they’re just trying to keep any kind of plastic tube out of the hands of its citizens.

    1. Could be turned into a plastic gun or something.

  3. We hit peak reality back in 2015.

  4. Calling Michael Brown a jaywalker reminds me of the joke of the guy who went to prison for sneezing…because he woke the museum guard.

  5. orally amended to include an exemption for disabled people

    Like it fucking matters.

    $1000 fine and/or 10 days in jail, if I hand a straw to the “wrong” customer? There’s no chance I’m going to keep plastic straws anywhere in my restaurant, any more than I would store high-grade nuclear waste there.

    We shouldn’t forget the fates of Eric Garner or Michael Brown, both killed by police after being stopped for selling loose cigarettes and jaywalking respectively.

    Garner wasn’t killed for selling loose cigarettes, at least not directly. He was killed for having sold loose cigarettes in the past, and thereby previously pissing off the pig that murdered him.

  6. “I cannot … understand why we need plastic stirrers”

    I can’t understand why we need whiny little bitches, yet here you are.

    /joke adapted from a T-shirt I saw in an ad

  7. What they mean is that if someone goes to jail, it is the fault of the criminal.

  8. >>>”The intention was never to issue fines or jail time,”

    no no, we’re just *playing* with power

    >>>In short, it was so outside Santa Barbara’s intentions to fine or jail someone for straws, it was a waste of time to make that explicit in the text of the ordinance they were considering.

    bridges for sale!

  9. What defines a “single use” straw? What about multi use straws that the clients choose to discard?

    1. True. There’s nothing about the straws they hand out at McD’s that necessitate discarding them after one use.

      Hell, simply print on the side of the straw: “Intended for reuse”.

      1. I would think the liability and cost of the defense from someone claiming they got cancer because the plastics broke down after washing them in a dishwasher far out weighs the cost of not stocking any straws.

        1. Just requires a bit more printing: “Intended for reuse; hand wash only.”

          1. Count me in. I reuse my McDo straws.

  10. Don’t you fucking love science?

    I hate everyone in this story.

  11. “I can understand how folks would be asking for plastic cutlery in certain circumstances, but I cannot … understand why we need plastic stirrers,” said Councilman Gregg Hart at that meeting.”

    Jesus, where do we find these people?

    1. Well, we have already seen that the privileged and bored classes, seeking a cool new way to signal their superiority, have decreed it that straws, while admittedly having nothing really to do with ocean pollution, are a great “first step” to “change the throwaway mentality”–a nice thing “we all can do” because “nobody really needs a straw.”

      Except of course for those who do. Namely the disabled. I have been working with them furiously here in NYC to try to block the straw ban, and was stunned that the progs absolutely do not give a fuck. Not one. Given the fact that the ADA has now, for example, allowed Obama to force the owners of even the tiniest pools to install a permanent, automatic chair lift (no commonsense alternatives allowed, even by grandfathering) and banned new minigolf courses unless a wheelchair can navigate every nook and cranny, at ramp grade, of at least half the holes, I figured there might be some sympathy when all the disabled want from the government is not to ban the tools they need to drink a simple glass of water with dignity. None. This has shocked even my cynicism about prog statism.

      1. We always knew progs are evil shitheads.

  12. The US Constitution and state Constitutions do not allow for bans of products or services. There is simply no authority to do so.

    Not sure why people allow governments to get away with this stuff.

    1. I am not sure about the various state constitutions, but there is one thing I have been curious about. The various anti-single-use-plastic bans (foam, bags, straws, etc.) have specifically not been regulations targeting their sale, but at their distribution for free. Yes we are talking about commercial, mostly for-profit establishments that serve the public. But in no case do they really condition said distribution on purchase, as one would for the stereotypical end run around commerce regulation like a sale of poker chip with a free booze gift or whatever. I have always wondered if this affects the powers of statutory regulation as laid out in any state constitution. (Probably not, since I haven’t seen any lawsuits to that effect.)

      1. They start with plastic bag fees, etc and then move to bans, to one-up some other Lefty city.

        Fees are not unconstitutional. Fees with an intent to effectively ban might also be unconstitutional. Bans are.

        1. Again, I have not read the various state Constitutions; there are fifty of them and all are quite long indeed. But I would think that as powers go “tax” means tax, and one might be able to overturn an especially heavy tax on the grounds that it is prohibitionist. But to say that, say, “regulate” or similar language does not empower a government to do so up to and including the level of a ban (de jure or de facto) seems to fly in the face of both common-sense textualism and plentiful historical context.

          I would love to find out otherwise, of course. But I just haven’t seen anything remotely convincing yet.

    2. Right. To the barricades!

      1. Veritas!

        1. Ban the ban!

  13. Santa Barbara, San Francisco, etc. are all proving that they are so impotent to do anything to help clean up their cities, improve roads, zoning, etc. that they will instead turn to plastic straw bans. Gotta do something after all, or at least make it look like something is being done for the voter’s sake.

  14. Michael Brown wasn’t shot 4 j-walking…

    1. Michael Brown would be more likely to have been C-walking than jaywalking.

      I didn’t catch that bit. I like the piece but it is unconscionable that that lie was included at this late date, especially when it is one that continues to poison our national debate. I don’t know what statute Ferguson has that “reaching for a cop’s gun” is a form of jaywalking, but that one would certainly merit the “weird laws” segment on your local trivia show.

  15. Do the poor people of SB get migraines from sucking on straws, is that what this is all about?

  16. as to unintended consequences most laws made are not researched prior to approval for any laws the new one would affect. for ex. in Ca. a law is still on the books that a “horseless carriage” must sound it’s horn when approaching an intersection so as not to startle horses drawing wagons. in S.Dakota a law existed till just a few years ago that made it legal to fire on a group of 5 or more native americans since that number would constitutute a war party. the powers that be leave laws on the books so they can have a pretense for detaining a person.

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