Jail Time Stripped Out of Nation's Most Controversial Straw Ban

Santa Barbara's new proposal would fine repeat violators up to $250 for handing out prohibited plastic straws and stirrers.



After several months of delays and amendments, the Santa Barbara City Council is back to banning straws. The new legislation would prohibit more plastic items but impose lesser penalities than the original ban proposed in July.

On Tuesday, the council voted 6–1 to reintroduce a bill prohibiting all food and beverage providers from providing customers with plastic straws or stirrers. Restaurateurs would also be barred from giving out plastic cutlery unless a customer specifically requests it.

Violators of the would be given a warning for a first-time offence, after which they could be subject to administrative fines of $100 to $250 per straw or stirrer. Harsh though that sounds, it is actually less strict that the initial legislation. Under the first version of the bill, repeat offenses would be treated as a code violation and thus a misdemeanor, opening up restaurateurs to potential criminal sanctions of $1,000 in fines and six months in jail.

Santa Barbara's straw ban attracted national attention when it was first considered, with everyone from the San Francisco Chronicle and Fox News to Donald Trump Jr. highlighting the severe nature of the sanctions. In an attempt to quell the controversy, city officials insisted that the criminal penalties were boilerplate language and would be employed only in the most extreme instances of providing people with straws.

Assistant City Attorney Scot Vincent told Reason in July that criminal charges would only be pursued after multiple violations and if there were aggravating circumstances. Bryan Latchford, Santa Barbara's outreach coordinator for environmental services, took the same line, saying that "the intention was never to issue fines or jail time."

Nevertheless, when the bill was kicked back to committee—so that plastic stirrers could added to the list of prohibited items—Santa Barbara officials also decided to strip out any potential for jail time. At the time, City Attorney Ariel Calonne argued for keeping criminal penalties for major violators. "The point I tried to make was we don't know whether we're going to be dealing with an innocent vendor who gives out one straw, or we're going to have Lime Bikes dumping 10,000 straws," said Calonne at Tuesday's city council meeting.

Calonne's suggestion fell on deaf ears. The new bill says plainly that the ban "shall not be criminally enforceable." More explicit protections for the disabled community were also included, making clear that food and beverage providers can still give out plastic straws on an on-demand basis for those who have difficulty drinking without them.

Disability activists still came out against the ban, arguing that it would deter restaurants from keeping straws on hand even for people who need them.

"It is our concern that food and beverage providers will just simply stop buying straws, and will therefore not have them available for individuals with disabilities when requested," said Dani Anderson, executive director of Santa Barbara's Independent Living Resource Center, at Tuesday's city council meeting. Anderson recommended amending the bill to penalize businesses that did not keep straws on hand.

The lone elected official opposing the straw ban was Councilman Randy Rowse, who, while stressing that "no one on either side of the argument thinks that straws are a good thing," argued that the amended straw ban was confusing and a waste of city resources.

"We've complicated things. We've complicated to the point of where we've used an amazing amount, an embarrassing amount of staff time and resources," said Rowse during Tuesday's hearing. "Today, after all the readings, after all we've come back to, we're still asking questions. The disabled community has some serious questions."

Rowse argued for a voluntary approach to cutting back on straws, but was ultimately overruled by proponents who saw in their straw ban bill an opportunity to change the world.

"The more we connect the dots from straws, to food waste, to transportation, the easier it will be for people to make the necessary changes," said Kathi King of Santa Barbara's Community Environmental Council.

"The straw is unique, and it is symbolic in many instances," said Councilman Eric Friedman, saying he hoped other communities would follow his city's example. "We are Santa Barbara, we pride ourselves on our legacy of environmental stewardship and policy, and when we act, others listen."

Tuesday's meeting introduced the amended straw ban for consideration, but the city council will have to vote again to officially adopt it. If passed, it will go into effect in July 2019.