The New Year arrived with a bang as residents welcomed broadly legalized marijuana in California. The change, much anticipated, comes a long twenty years after the state become the very first in the United States to permit its medical use. Despite weed having the same classification as LSD and heroin under federal law, which keeps it illegal, more and more states, including the nation’s capital, are legalizing it.
Medical patients have long been using marijuana dispensaries in California, but now, anyone 21-years and older can buy and use it recreationally, as well. Each individual may now cultivate up to six plants for personal use and legally carry an ounce of it on their person. However, finding somewhere to purchase recreational weed may prove extremely challenging, or initially at least.
As the state welcomed New Year’s Day, only 90 state-licensed businesses exist, and they are over whelmingly over represented in the Palm Springs, San Francisco Bay, Santa Cruz, and San Diego areas. Consumers will not be able to buy recreational pot in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and many other cities for some time yet, as local regulations failed to approve licenses needed for state permits in time.
Still other cities chose to forbid the sale of recreational marijuana in their jurisdictions, such as Riverside, Bakersfield, and Fresno. Despite this, the reality of legalized adult use is finally here and cause for much celebration among communities throughout the state. Khalil Moutawakkil, founder of Santa Cruz-based KindPeoples, which both cultivates and sells, captured the mood of most simply, “We are thrilled.”
Moutawakkil also said, “We can talk about the good, the bad and the ugly of the specific regulations, but at the end of the day, it is a giant step forward, and we will have to work out the kinks as we go.” According to the advocacy group NORML, officially called the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, California outlawed marijuana locally back in 1913.
In 1972, the first ever voter initiative to reverse that law failed, but it did succeed in downgrading the felony possession of an ounce to a minor misdemeanor three years later. Despite fierce objections in 1996 from three former presidents, then-President Clinton himself, and law enforcement, voters in California approved the medicinal use of cannabis.
Last year, two long decades later, voters approved the use of recreational pot for adults, setting a deadline of a year for the state to draft regulations for the market to open legally in 2018. Currently, medical patients can access legal marijuana dispensaries, even marijuana delivery, in 29 states. Recreational use has been legal in Washington and Colorado since 2012 already.
Since then, another five states have liberalized recreational pot laws, including in Massachusetts, which plans to begin retail sales in July of this year. There are some hurdles to overcome still, however. Even with basing its regulatory framework on the successful models of other states, this year is likely to be a legally bumpy one for marijuana in California.
The state plans to issue more licenses, so more shops will be in operation. Regulations will become stricter, such as those already taking effect on some strains, such as Russian Assassin, Trainwreck, and Sweet Skunk. Stoned drivers remain a concern of the California Police Chiefs Association, which opposed legalization in 2016, along with risks to children, policing costs, and dealing with a parallel black market.
Jonathan Feldman, legislative advocate for the association, had this to say, “There is going to be a public-health cost and a public-safety cost enforcing these new laws and regulations. It remains to be seen if this can balance itself out.” Initially, weed shops will sell product grown and harvested without regulatory oversight, but ultimately, the state wants control of the entire cannabis chain.
To operate legally in California, pot shops will have to pass state-mandated tests for potency, pesticide use, and other contaminants. They will have to comply with state programs that will track all marijuana in the state, from seed to final sale. There will also be other protections in place for commercial compliance, including the provision of childproof containers and advertising limitations.
Nestled in Northern California’s Shasta Lake lies the 530 Cannabis Shop. Its founder, Jamie Garzot, worries that there will be a huge shortfall of marijuana available to meet state regulations, particularly once the current harvest dries up. Her shop is near some of the most cannabis-decorated land in California, but the counties surrounding her will not permit cultivation for her fast-dwindling supply.
Garzot explained the source of her concern, “Playing in the gray market is not an option. California produces more cannabis than any state in the nation, but going forward, if it is not from a state-licensed source, I cannot put it on my shelf. If I choose to do so, I run the risk of losing my license.” The state grew roughly 13.5 million pounds of weed in 2016.
However, according to a state-prepared report by environmental and agricultural firm ERA Economics, 80 percent of all cannabis grown in California crossed state lines illegally. Of the 20 percent remaining, only a measly quarter of it entered the legal medical industry. This huge black market will carry on thriving unabated, especially as fees and taxes raise retail prices by a staggering 70 percent.