For the steady stream of customers waiting to see a “budtender” Thursday at a Santa Ana pot store, U.S. Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions’ broadside against recreational pot was more a bummer than a buzzkill.
People were annoyed — but not terribly surprised that California, once again, would be going to battle in the cultural wars with the Trump administration.
“This is an attempt to take us back to the ’50s, where you’re a criminal if you use,” said Craig Burns, 66, who came up from Laguna Beach to buy pot at 420 Central dispensary. “But now, even somebody who follows their state’s law is a criminal. It’s going backwards.”
Customer Lyn Terry, a 45-year-old scientist, was more pointed, adding that California’s ideas would eventually win the day.
“Jeff Sessions is an old dinosaur with old ideas,” Terry said. “We have a younger, newer, more educated population who will vote that out. It won’t last.”
California has emerged as a resistance to the Trump administration on a variety of issues over the last year, including immigration policy and environmental protection. Legalized marijuana is perhaps a less weighty issue. But backers see the larger symbolism of California standing up for what it thinks is right and being willing to take on the president.
Sessions on Thursday rescinded an Obama-era policy that discouraged federal prosecutors from pursuing marijuana-related charges in states that had legalized the substance, which remains illegal under federal law. Sessions said the previous policy “undermines the rule of law.”
The move came on Day 4 of legal recreational marijuana sales in California. Big crowds have flocked to dispensaries in the few cities that already have begun issuing licenses to pot shops, and Thursday proved no exception, even with Sessions’ announcement.
At 420 Central, the full waiting room resembled that of a doctor’s office, with people playing on their phones as they patiently waited about half an hour to see their budtenders. In the locked room where the marijuana was stored, soft music played, and customers peered into glass cases and sniffed green medicine bottles.
Robert Taft Jr., the dispensary founder, said he thinks Sessions is trying to appease the alcohol, pharmaceutical and tobacco companies that might feel threatened by the new, lucrative marijuana industry. In the first two days of legal recreational sales in California, 420 Central paid $50,000 in federal, state and local taxes, Taft said.
If the federal government prosecutes pot shops, underground organizations will still sell weed without the government getting any cut of the sales, he said.
“I don’t understand why they would want the black market and the cartels to have this power when they can have it,” he said.
On New Year’s Day, Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguin hustled to one of the United States’ oldest dispensaries, Berkeley Patients Group, to cut a green ribbon with a pair of giant scissors to celebrate the first day of recreational sales. It was before the sun rose, and there was already a long line of people, he said in an interview Thursday.
Arreguin said Sessions’ announcement was far from a surprise.
“This is the continuation of Trump’s attack on California,” he said. “The people of California voted to allow adult use of cannabis and medical use of cannabis … the federal government should respect the rights of states to pass these laws.”
West Hollywood Mayor John Heilman, who is an instructor at USC Gould School of Law, said he didn’t foresee many federal prosecutors suddenly deciding to pursuing marijuana charges in California, where voter support for legal pot is so broad.
“Republicans are in favor of states’ rights when it’s to their purpose, but they weren’t very much in favor of states’ rights when it came to issues like legalizing same-sex marriage,” Heilman said. “States’ rights is an argument they trot out when it’s convenient.”
In Heilman’s city, more than 100 people stood in line outside the marijuana dispensaries on Santa Monica Boulevard on Thursday, and employees of the Medmen shop handed out free red T-shirts that read, “It’s Legal.”
Waiting at Zen Healing dispensary were Nell Lewis, 22, and Chris Clark, 23, who had traveled from Florida to celebrate the holidays — and to buy weed. At home, they said, they worry they’ll be arrested if they’re caught with it.
Despite Sessions’ announcement, they felt perfectly at ease buying pot in California.
“I don’t feel nervous at all,” Lewis said. “Seeing the people out here who support it … makes me feel more comfortable.”
“The people want marijuana without having to worry about legal trouble,” Clark said. “We don’t want to hurt anyone.”
Khalil Moutawakkil, chief executive and co-founder of KindPeoples dispensary in Santa Cruz, said Sessions’ announcement didn’t put a damper on a week that has brought a slew of new customers to his shop.
“What gives us the most comfort is that the people and democracy are on our side,” Moutawakkil said, noting California voters approved legalization in 2016. “That feels good to say. We had very strong support in California, and we are a leader at both the national and international level.”
“Its been really exciting for people to come out of the weed closet and participate in a very normal, regulated retail environment,” he added. “People showing up for the first time at a dispensary feel a sense of relief and legitimization.”
In Los Angeles, many marijuana businesses have been eagerly awaiting local approval so they can obtain state licenses and start selling recreational pot. Virgil Grant, who co-founded the marijuana industry group Southern California Coalition, said he was peppered with phone calls Thursday after the news broke in Washington.
Grant said that despite the unease, “I believe owners will continue to operate their business as they see fit.”
“Trump is a businessman,” he added. “I don’t see Trump allowing a billion-dollar industry to be chopped at the knees.”
Bruce Margolin, executive director of the L.A. chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, denounced the move as “a bunch of overblown, prejudiced reefer madness.”
Times staff writer Michael Livingston contributed to this report.