Legal sale of recreational marijuana began in California on Monday with fanfare, celebratory 'blunts' and some anxiety.
Companies began selling pot in a relatively small number of businesses Monday, with more expected to join in the coming days and weeks.
The state has issued dozens of permits for retailers to begin recreational sales this week, expanding a market that is expected to grow to $7 billion annually by 2020. Several of those retailers are in West Hollywood, but they won’t open until Tuesday at the city’s request. That makes Santa Ana’s licensed stores the closest option for Angelenos who want to buy recreational marijuana on New Year’s Day. Buyers could also trek to San Diego or the Palm Springs area to purchase pot.
To sell cannabis commercially in January — for recreational or medical use — marijuana businesses must have local approval and a state license. Existing medical marijuana dispensaries have been given first priority for recreational sales.
The city of Los Angeles has yet to start issuing local licenses to pot shops, which stirred unease among some existing medical marijuana dispensaries that have been following city rules.
Hundreds of customers — everyone from older people in leisure suits to a young man in pajamas got in line — waited upwards of an hour to buy such things as pre-rolled joints to topical creams and foods infused with marijuana.
“We can deliver marijuana in 20 minutes; it’s like pizza,” said Will Senn, co-founder of Urbn Leaf.
He surveyed the line outside of his Bay Park store and said, “This is crazy. We hoped for big crowds, and prepared. But we didn’t expect this.”
By noon Monday, the store had served more than 350 customers, more than it serves all day.
“We’re at capacity inside, we have 75 people in line, and the line is getting longer,” Senn said. “We would get as many as 1,000 people by the end of the day.”
Just after midnight, some raised joints instead of champagne glasses.
Johnny Hernandez, a tattoo artist from Modesto, celebrated by smoking “Happy New Year blunts” with his cousins.
“This is something we’ve all been waiting for,” he said. “It is something that can help so many people and there’s no reason why we should not be sharing that.”
Hernandez said he hoped the legalization of recreational marijuana would help alleviate the remaining stigma some still believe surrounds marijuana use.
“People might actually realize weed isn’t bad. It helps a lot of people,” he said.
Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguin and state Sen. Nancy Skinner were on hand for a ribbon-cutting ceremony as his city began selling marijuana legally. Customers began lining up before dawn Monday outside Berkeley Patients Group, one of the oldest dispensaries in the nation. A big crowd also gathered at Harborside dispensary in nearby Oakland.
Heather Sposeto came to Sacramento’s Northstar Holistic Collective with her boyfriend, Matthew Wilcox, to check out the hype around California’s newly legalized marijuana.
The 50-year-old Sposeto doesn’t smoke pot, but said she’s considering starting now that it became legal at 12:01 a.m. Monday.
She said being in the dispensary, with counters of options ranging from chocolate to bud, felt “surreal.”
Wilcox purchased some pot after perusing the options. The 53-year-old smokes recreationally almost daily but had never been in a dispensary. He said given the price, he’s likely to continue purchasing through his personal connections.
Jeff Deakin waited all night outside Harborside with his wife and dog. The 66-year-old says it’s a big deal that they can buy cannabis while feeling safe and secure, without having to make the purchase in a back alley.
California’s Bureau of Cannabis Control is continuing to review applications and approve licenses after retail sales of marijuana became legal on the New Year’s Day holiday.
Spokesman Alex Traverso says he isn’t aware of any problems at the roughly 100 shops around the state that began selling pot Monday.
There has been growing anticipation over the beginning of pot sales.
“We are excited. We just got our state license on Saturday … so immediately there was extra energy in everyone’s step,” said Robert Taft Jr., founder of the medical marijuana dispensary 420 Central in Santa Ana. “Being part of history is an amazing thing.”
Taft said he brought in five new cash registers and hired six additional “bud tenders” in preparation for the new law. He also doubled his inventory and consulted with his attorneys daily to ensure his store was in full compliance.
Taft has also increased the store’s security, adding 24-hour armed guards. Selling recreational marijuana is an all-cash business.
Kiloh, president of the United Cannabis Business Assn., now says his dispensary will be able to continue providing medical marijuana to patients in January by operating as a "collective" until it has received state and local licenses. After weighing their legal options, most of the marijuana shops in his group are operating the same way, Kiloh said.
As soon as L.A. grants them approval, those marijuana dispensaries will seek state licenses, he added.
For many in the industry, the new law signals a long-awaited shift.
“The days of the dime bag are long, long gone,” said Daniel Yi, spokesman for MedMen, one of the three West Hollywood shops that will be selling cannabis for recreational use.
Medical marijuana customers at the shop Sunday browsed through lotions, honey and wellness packages infused with cannabis. Some poked at an iPad with a menu showing closeups of different marijuana buds.
Yi said the new law will make it hard for the country to ignore the emergence of recreational cannabis.
“This is the most populous state. We’ve popularized yoga. We’ve popularized sushi,” he said. “I think this is going to move the needle like nothing else when it comes to the national conversation.”
Brian Gordon believes the new law will help remove the stigma from a drug that is already widely used.
Unfortunately, he said, that progress costs money.
When he went to purchase an ounce of low-grade cannabis from his regular West Hollywood dispensary, he was told that the new law would significantly drive up prices. State, city and sales taxes will push up the price of the drug by more than a third.
Those who register with the Los Angeles County Department of Health and enroll in the medical marijuana program will be exempted from paying sales taxes, but they will still see a 25% increase.
Gordon, who is between jobs, said the increase will hurt him and other patients who use the drug for medical purposes.
“I don’t mind paying the extra money if the money is actually being used for good,” said Gordon, who uses cannabis to ease his sciatica pain.
At a nearby marijuana shop, a bud tender said that patients have expressed shock and anger at the increased cost.
“This is not right,” he said. He requested anonymity because he feared losing his job for speaking about the issue without the shop owner’s permission.