California is on the brink of legalizing the sale of recreational pot, with the first round of state licenses for marijuana businesses kicking into effect in January.
But Los Angeles pot shops won't be able to immediately start selling marijuana for recreational use on New Year's Day, city officials cautioned Friday.
"We are starting a process. This is something that is not going to happen overnight," said Cat Packer, who heads L.A.'s Department of Cannabis Regulation.
To sell marijuana to adult customers — not just patients — marijuana businesses will need both local approval and a state license. Los Angeles will not start taking applications until Jan. 3, beginning with existing medical marijuana dispensaries that have been operating in line with previous city rules.
Packer estimated that roughly 200 businesses might fit those requirements and that many could get temporary approval from the city within roughly three weeks. Before they can start selling marijuana for recreational use, however, those pot shops would also need to get state licenses.
"A lot of the businesses are disappointed because they aren't going to be able to participate on the first day," said Aaron Lachant, an attorney representing some of those existing marijuana shops.
Lachant said his clients feared that amid the media "fanfare" about recreational sales beginning in January, eager customers might turn to the black market.
It is unclear how quickly the city will start processing applications for other kinds of marijuana businesses. The second batch that will be up for city approval are existing growers, manufacturers and other kinds of pot businesses that meet specific requirements.
That phase of applications will end at the beginning of April, but Packer said the city has not decided when it will begin, or when the city will start accepting applications from all other eligible marijuana entrepreneurs. That could mean that some pot shops could get city licenses to sell recreational cannabis before they have a local supplier who is licensed to provide it to them.
Under the L.A. regulations, existing pot shops that have been operating in line with Proposition D — a law approved by voters more than four years ago — will continue to have "limited immunity" from city prosecution until the city makes a final decision on their applications. Marijuana growers and manufacturers that supplied those shops may also be able to avoid local prosecution while their applications are being processed.
L.A. approved new regulations for the marijuana industry earlier this month, paving the way for a hotly anticipated industry that is expected to bring in more than $50 million in tax revenue annually for the city. The rules restrict where pot shops and other cannabis businesses can operate and lay out how they will be vetted and inspected.
They also lay the groundwork for a "social equity" program that aims to address the uneven effects of the war on drugs, providing extra assistance to poor applicants who were convicted of some marijuana crimes or who have lived in neighborhoods heavily affected by marijuana arrests.
While L.A. is preparing to license marijuana businesses, many other California cities and counties — including the nearby cities of Pasadena, Riverside and Anaheim — have opted out of allowing commercial cannabis sales. Others are holding off and waiting to see how the new system works before deciding whether to permit pot businesses.