By Brian Melley
LOS ANGELES — Californians may awake on New Year’s Day to a stronger-than-normal whiff of marijuana as America’s cannabis king lights up to celebrate the state’s first legal retail pot sales.
The historic day comes more than two decades after California paved the way for legal weed by passing the nation’s first medical marijuana law, though other states were quicker to allow the drug’s recreational use.
From the small town of Shasta Lake just south of Oregon to San Diego on the Mexican border, the first of about six dozen shops licensed by the state will open today to customers who previously needed a medical reason or a dope dealer to score pot.
In November 2016, California voters legalized recreational marijuana for adults 21 and older, making it legal to grow six plants and possess an ounce of pot. The state was given a year to set retail market regulations that are still being formalized and will be phased in over the next year.
“We’re thrilled,” said Khalil Moutawakkil, founder of KindPeoples, which grows, manufactures and sells weed in Santa Cruz. “We can talk about the good, the bad and the ugly of the specific regulations, but at the end of the day it’s a giant step forward, and we’ll have to work out the kinks as we go.”
Today, 28 other states have adopted similar laws. In 2012, Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize recreational marijuana. California is one of five states, plus Washington, D.C., that followed suit. Retail sales are scheduled to begin in Massachusetts in July.
With wider acceptance, the aroma of marijuana smoke has become more pervasive in parts of California, and use accelerated after the legalization vote.
The next year is expected to be a bumpy one as more shops open and more stringent regulations take effect.
The California Police Chiefs Association, which opposed the ballot measure, remains concerned about stoned drivers, the appeal the drug will have for young people as it becomes more normalized, and the cost of policing the new rules in addition to an existing black market.
“There’s going to be a public health cost and a public safety cost enforcing these new laws and regulations,” said Jonathan Feldman, a legislative advocate for the chiefs. “It remains to be seen if this can balance itself out.”
For consumers, the most surprising revelation may be the dearth of places to get ganja. In theory, buying a joint, loose weed or a hash brownie should be as easy as finding a craft beer, but options are few as some cities have rejected retail sales and others have taken a more mellow approach toward licensing operations.
Pot-friendly San Francisco, a counterculture hub where marijuana smoke has been a fixture for half a century, was late to establish local regulations and won’t have any retail outlets open for business until later in the week. It’s a similar situation in Los Angeles.
Meantime, Fresno, Riverside, Anaheim, Bakersfield and all of surrounding Kern County have prohibited pot shops, and Long Beach has a temporary ban.