“Groove on! Groove on!” blared from speakers outside a gray warehouse in Santa Ana. Inside, a line of 60 people snaked through the shop, waiting to be helped by a budtender.
“We were bombarded!” said Robert Taft Jr., founder of the marijuana dispensary 420 Central.
When the shop opened at 7 a.m. Monday — Day 1 of legal recreational pot sales in California — a handful of people had already lined up. Within two hours, more than 100 customers, some still nursing holiday hangovers, had made purchases. As they walked out, Taft shouted, “Enjoy your new freedom!”
Californians voted to legalize recreational marijuana in 2016, and the historic law permitting such businesses took effect New Year’s Day — creating the largest legal pot market in the country. Hundreds of businesses have applied for temporary licenses, but industry officials expect a slow roll out as many cities have not yet given their approval. While the city of L.A. hasn’t begun issuing licenses to pot shops, some dispensaries are expected to open in West Hollywood on Tuesday.
On Monday, San Francisco businesses weren’t open for commercial sales of pot, but Berkeley was ready. One of the United States’ oldest dispensaries, the Berkeley Patients Group, opened its doors at 6 a.m. to a line of customers that snaked around the block and showed no signs of abating by late afternoon.
Among the many celebrants were Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguin and state Sen. Nancy Skinner, who cut a ceremonial green ribbon to mark the first sale.
Sean Luse, chief operating officer of Berkeley Patients Group, said some people had traveled from the Central Valley and towns in the Sierra foothills to visit the dispensary.
“I’d say the crowd size is about three or four times what we would typically see,” Luse said. “Now that it’s mainstream and open to anyone 21-plus, you have a different dynamic. People are coming in groups or as families — it feels festive today.”
In San Diego, the wait stretched to 40 minutes at the Mankind Cooperative.
“We’re insane down here. And it’s still going on, girlfriend,” marketing director Cathy Bliss said.
Store workers were handing out commemorative T-shirts showing astronauts on the moon and the phrase “A giant leap for mankind.”
California’s new marijuana law allows sales to people from out of state. Bliss welcomed buyers from Iowa, Kansas and Canada.
Overall, she was thrilled. “This is so cool,” she said.
Back inside 420 Central, customers hunched over the glass counter, inspecting different flavors of pot — Grape Kryptonite, Girl Scout Cookies, Mega Queso. Prefer edibles? Budtenders pointed to a pack of dark chocolate covered espresso beans for $18. The nearby tip jar reads, “Hate to be BLUNT WEED love a tip.”
Taylor Anthony, from New York, takes a whiff of marijuana for sale at 420 Central in Santa Ana, Calif., during the first day of legal recreational-pot sales on Jan. 1.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Chris Brown, left, an employee of 420 Central in Santa Ana, Calif., and Jason Ayala thank each other after completing a sale on Jan. 1.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
A line of customers extends out of the front door at 420 Central in Santa Ana, Calif., on Jan. 1.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Customer Kurt Elvis talks to employee Kevin Gardner at 420 Central in Santa Ana, Calif., on Jan. 1, the first day of legal recreational-pot sales in California.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Customers smell marijuana for purchase at Cathedral City Care Collective in Cathedral City on Jan. 1.
Bob and Judy Malgeri discuss their purchase options at 420 Central in Santa Ana, Calif., on Jan. 1.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Customers inspect marijuana for sale at Cathedral City Collective Care on Jan. 1.(Maria Alejandra Cardona / Los Angeles Times)
Enrique Rodriguez, left, buys marijuana at Cathedral City Collective Care on Jan. 1, the first day of legal recreational-pot sales in California.(Maria Alejandra Cardona / Los Angeles Times)
Jason Ayala, from New York, reacts to an inspection of a product offered at 420 Central in Santa Ana, Calif., on Jan. 1, the first official day of legal recreational-pot sales in California.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Customers shop for marijuana products at Med Men in Santa Ana, Calif., on Jan. 1.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
As Lucas Starr, 33, perused the shop, he thought about how much perceptions of marijuana had shifted during his lifetime. Growing up, the message from his parents and from society, he said, was that marijuana was a dangerous drug — a gateway toward a wrecked life. He thought back to the PSA commercials showing a fried egg and an announcer intoning, “This is your brain on drugs.” Starr, a musician and producer visiting from Dallas, said he initially bought into the fear, but eventually smoked marijuana and found that it calmed his anxiety.
Customer Judy Malgeri, 65, also finds marijuana therapeutic. She uses it to manage pain and bring back her appetite during chemotherapy for ovarian cancer. Although she already had a medicinal-marijuana card, she said she was very happy to see recreational pot legalized — anything that brings marijuana further into the mainstream, she said, is a good thing.
“It’s about time,” she said, shaking her head at the memory of an era when police hassled people over a single seed of marijuana in a car. “Arrested for a joint? That’s so sad. It’s a fruit of the Earth.”
When a man with graying hair and a Bluetooth headset walked inside the shop, he left his sunglasses on and did a double-take when he noticed a TV cameraman nearby. Asked what he was interested in, the man laughed nervously, saying, “It’s been a while,” adding that he recalled enjoying edibles.
He settled on a container of cannabis-infused sea salt caramel candies and pulled $20 out of his wallet. “I think this might be a one-time thing,” the man said, laughing. The budtender smiled, telling him he was always welcome.
Approached by a reporter as he left the store, the man gasped. “Oh my God!” He continued, “No, I’m not here.”
Earlier in the morning, Gary Goforth walked out of the shop smiling. His trip to the dispensary hadn’t been planned, but while walking to breakfast, a man pulled up next to him and asked, “Hey, where’s 420?”
Goforth hadn’t heard of the shop, but offered to look up the location on his phone and ride along with the man to help him navigate. As a thank you, the stranger bought him a gram of indica.
The 27-year-old bartender — who said he sold marijuana during college to pay his rent — said legalization was a necessary step.
“It’s a new future,” he said, adding that he hopes to get a job at the shop. “Why not move up in the ranks in something you enjoy?”
Back inside, Taft, the founder, smiled as he watched the line growing in the lobby.
“Weed the people should be proud,” he said, delivering the first word with emphasis, so you know he didn’t misspeak. “Red and blue turns into green when we come together. We can change any law we want.”
Taft then began to reminisce about how the dispensary, which opened in 2015 as a medical-marijuana shop, got its start. Back when he was hunting for a building, his friend who works in real estate showed him the warehouse. Taft thought it was too big — it reminded him of Costco, not a dispensary.
But moments later, he looked up at the address numbers on the side of the warehouse — 420. He turned to ask his friend what street they were on. “Central,” the friend responded.
“So you’re telling me this is 420 Central?” Taft asked.
His friend fell to his knees in shock.
Times staff writer Anna Phillips and the Associated Press contributed to this report.