Celebrating a major shift in cultural attitudes about cannabis — or just looking to enjoy the right to get high without legal entanglements — Californians lined up at dispensaries up and down the state Monday morning to be among the first to purchase recreational marijuana, more than a year after the state’s voters passed Proposition 64.
In the pre-dawn darkness at KindPeoples collective in Santa Cruz, a line of 80 people snaked around the building before doors opened. The first sale – a eighth of a gram of indica flower called ‘Nine Pound Hammer’ – was made to resounding applause to Craig Reinarman, a 69-year-old UC Santa Cruz professor emeritus of sociology and legal studies whose research has focused on drug policy in America.
“It feels great. It is long overdue,” Reinarman said. “Cannabis prohibition was conceived in fraud, spread by racist fears full of misinformation and myths. And now the law is finally catching up with the culture and people.”
Jeff Deakin, 66, lined up outside Harborside, a dispensary in Oakland, about 6 p.m. on New Year’s Eve to be one of the first people to legally purchase recreational marijuana on the first day sales became legal to adults 21 and older. He was the first of a line of several hundred people of all ages and backgrounds eager to buy recreational cannabis.
“It just seems to help me get through the day,” the veteran said as he waited patiently with his wife, Mary, and dog Rosie for the dispensary doors to open at 6 a.m.
“It’s a feeling of freedom,” said a 72-year-old Cathedral City resident who was among 13 people lined up at West Coast Cannabis Club in Riverside County before 6 a.m. The man, who declined to give his name, bought raw flower and five pre-rolls for $1 each in his first purchase at a marijuana store. He said he planned to smoke while watching bowl games during the day.
Many experts had expressed doubts that California would hit the Monday deadline to get regulations and permits in place so that sales could start. But the Bureau of Cannabis Control managed to release emergency regulations for the industry in November and start issuing temporary licenses in mid-December that would kick in on New Year’s Day.
As of Sunday night, the bureau had issued more than 100 licenses to shops and microbusinesses that were ready to sell recreational marijuana when stores were allowed to open as early as 6 a.m. Monday, per state law.
Touting the catchphrase “Flower to the people, cannabis for all,” Harborside – owned by longtime legalization advocate Steve DeAngelo – announced on social media days earlier that it would be opening at 6 a.m. Jan. 1, with gifts for the first 100 people in line.
Wearing two long grey braids and a navy blue hat, DeAngelo addressed a cheering crowd Monday morning before cutting a green ribbon with a giant pair of silver scissors to kick off legal sales at Harborside.
“Many people never thought we would see this day,” he said. “I’m so happy.”
State Sen. Nancy Skinner, who represents much of the East Bay, including Oakland and Berkeley, spent much of her morning between Berkeley Patients Group and Harborside in Oakland.
“To me this is huge,” she said. “I want responsible use, but I also want use that is legal for everybody and equitable.”
Recreational legalization, she hopes, will “finally put an end” to the criminalization of marijuana, which, she said, disproportionately affected black and brown Californians.
Skinner said she and other officials will be looking to learn as the industry takes off, including evaluating whether fees associated with recreational sales are too high and whether small growers will be pushed out.
Oakland City Councilman Noel Gallo also stopped by Harborside and said he was happy that people who grew up knowing the product can now legally use it and not wind up in prison. “I recognize a lot of my neighbors in line making the purchase legally,” Gallo said, looking over his shoulder.
Harborside passed out flags and commemorative t-shirts to the first 100 people in line, along with free coffee and donuts. The dispensary’s first recreational cannabis transaction was with the lawyer Henry Wykowski, who has represented Harborside. DeAngelo made the sale, a gram of Neville’s Purple flowers, for $20.10, after making a show of scanning Wykowski’s ID to make sure he was at least 21.
Chelsea Purdie, 24, of Oakland, said she isn’t really an avid user but heard there would be free stuff and wanted to check it out.
“I think it’s great for people who need it,” Purdie said of legalization.
A 55-year-old Oakland man who would identify himself only as Big Jon, said he retired Dec. 31 and was finally free from the requirements of a commercial Class A driving license. “It’s been 32 years,” Big Jon said, adding that he’d been hearing about edibles and other products he’d like to try.
“I’m sure it’s more potent than I remember!”
Big Jon wasn’t the only cannabis customers unwilling to give his or her name to reporters. Many said that despite legalization, cannabis use still has a negative stigma and they were worried about hurting their careers if word got out that they use marijuana.
Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguin had no qualms about speaking out in favor of recreational legalization, however.
Around 6 a.m., Arreguin joined Sen. Skinner and a few dozen others at the Berkeley Patients Group for the initial recreational sales, saying he was “stoked” about the day. The first customers lined up around 4 a.m., said chief operating officer Sean Luse, and the first sale went to a longtime activist named Mikki Norris.
By midmorning, vapor pens and edible products were among the most popular items at the shop, with a number of Baby Boomers who smoked marijuana years ago interested in trying cannabis in new forms.
“There’s a learning curve for some of those folks,” Luse said
At Harborside, about 55 employees were on hand for the first day of recreational sales, carrying tablets loaded with information about available products, giving the occasion the feel of opening day at an Apple store. Some customers knew exactly what they wanted to buy but others were open to suggestions, including a popular potent strain called Super Lemon Haze, selling for $17 a gram.
The dispensary was expecting to do about $150,000 in sales on Monday alone.
Carol Wyatt of West Oakland and Carlos Hooks of San Francisco came to Oakland about 7 a.m. in sparkly New Year’s hats from the night before. Both said the beginning of recreational cannabis sales was a great reason to celebrate. Wyatt, who says cannabis has helped her through menopause, came “to be able to see and be part of history,” she said.
The sale of recreational cannabis was also expected to generate windfalls for both the state and local communities, with estimates of tax revenue into the hundreds of millions. West Coast Cannabis Club CEO Ken Churchill said he was giving his customers a break Monday and absorbing the cost of taxes with his sales. But come Tuesday, he said, they could expect to see surcharges totaling 10-15 percent on top of the sticker price.
Medical marijuana has been legal in California since 1996, when the Golden State made history by approving Proposition 215. But patients have needed a doctor’s recommendation to buy cannabis through that system. And no dispensaries have had state authorization to sell marijuana, with “nonprofit collectives” allowed only under local authority.
That all began to change on Nov. 8, 2016, when 57 percent of California voters voted yes on Proposition 64.
The ballot measure immediately made it legal for adults 21 and older to possess up to an ounce of cannabis and to grow up to six marijuana plants per household. But it gave the state until Jan. 1, 2018 to get regulations and licensing in place so that sales could begin.
“What a way to start the new year,” said Rome VanBergen, 57, who was one of the first people to buy cannabis when 420 Central in Santa Ana opened at 7 a.m., per city policy.
VanBergen lives in Long Beach, but the Orange County city is the closest to have legal sales on Jan. 1.
“I don’t really smoke it or use it, to be honest,” VanBergen said. But she’s a longtime advocate for cannabis legalization, so she said she wanted to come buy taxed products and show her support for legal shops in hopes that other cities and states will take note.
“It should be legal nationally,” she said. “It’s a plant.”
Santa Ana Councilman Jose Solorio planned to lead elected officials from surrounding areas on a tour of his city’s legal shops Monday afternoon.
“I think there are just a lot of unknowns for individuals even from our own city,” he said. “The reality is that the stores are functioning well, they’re safe, they’re generating a lot of revenues for themselves and for the city, and I think the customers have been using cannabis responsibly.”
Solorio predicts Santa Ana will see more than $5 million in revenue from cannabis sales this year, which will go toward law enforcement and youth programs. But he said for him, supporting legal shops in his city is about enforcing the will of the voters — something missing in large swaths of California, where residents approved Proposition 64 but local authorities won’t welcome cannabis businesses.
“It is historic in that, at least for much of the South California area, Santa Ana is really the only place today where adults can buy cannabis under the proposition that they voted on,” Solorio said.
Stores were anxious to claim boasting rights for selling California’s first legal gram of marijuana. But even though all cannabis in the state now must be tracked from seed to sale, Alex Traverso with the cannabis bureau said the sales data isn’t real time, so they wouldn’t be able to say which shop processed the first transaction.
Cities are allowed to create more restrictive rules for marijuana businesses in their boundaries, and many don’t let shops open until later in the day.
At the Santa Cruz-based KindPeoples shop, tourists Toby and Shara Edwards arrived at 5:30 a.m. to be the first in line. “It’s a great day,” said Toby. “It’s like a concert crowd, with the cool people, who all have a story to tell. For 35 years, I’ve been waiting for this.”
Residents of Pensacola, Florida – “2,000 miles and 40 years away from California,” Toby Edwards joked – they bought $85 worth of cannabis-infused candies, topical lotions and pre-rolled cigarettes.
“It’s completely illegal (in Florida),” he said. “The penalties are so severe you can lose your job. They can seize your property. It just isn’t worth it. This is so different.”
Wearing a plastic cannabis wreath, Santa Cruz resident Tree Island, 69, recalled buying cannabis in small matchboxes as a youth. “The paranoia!” she said. “If there was a knock on the door, somebody would be standing over the toilet, ready to flush it. It was scary. This is a historic day.”
The line to enter San Jose’s Caliva dispensary started on the evening of New Year’s Eve, with customers spending the night wrapped in warm blankets and sleeping in lawn chairs, joined by their pet dogs, friends and family.
“It’s awesome. It’s been a long time coming,” said Miguel Vargas of San Jose, who arrived at 7 p.m. to be first in line for the store’s 9 a.m. opening, buying cannabis to ease lower back pain and aching knees. “This is going to help a lot of people.”
When doors opened, about 200 people — from San Francisco to Gilroy — stood in a well-mannered line that flanked the entire length of the building. They were greeted with disco music, free Krispy Kreme doughnuts and fresh coffee.
Some cities narrowly missed letting their shops join the Jan. 1 rush.
Several shops in West Hollywood have state licenses to sell recreational marijuana. But city rules won’t let sales start until Jan. 2.
Los Angeles plans to start accepting applications for local permits on Jan. 3 and to issue them later in the month. Those businesses will then be able to apply for state licenses.
Attorneys advising a group of Los Angeles dispensaries have concluded that those businesses can continue to legally sell medicinal marijuana as “collectives,” until they obtain local and state licenses under California’s new system of legal pot. The city’s delay led to widespread concern that long-established businesses would have to shut down during the interim.
Jerred Kiloh of the United Cannabis Business Association says his group hopes to continue to provide patient access to medicinal marijuana.
San Francisco also delayed the start of local sales until Jan. 5.
California is now the sixth state in the nation to allow recreational cannabis sales, joining Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska and Nevada.
“I feel like I’m in Colorado, but I’m in California,” said Rigoberto Espinoza, 28, who admitted he was a little nervous as he shopped Monday morning.
He’s been a longtime consumer but never got a medical marijuana card. He knew it was becoming legal soon, so he decided just to wait. And Monday, he got his first store-bought cannabis at West Coast Cannabis Club in his hometown of Cathedral City.
“I’m going to go smoke a J (short for joint) and go back to sleep,” he said.
Cannabis financial news site Green Market Report projects California will sell more than $15 billion in cannabis this first year.
“From a population standpoint, California is larger than the seven Western cannabis states combined, even larger than Canada,” said Jim Pakulis, president of Lifestyle Delivery Systems, which has a large cultivation and manufacturing facility in Adelanto. “We’ll see tremendous revenue generated in California in 2018 from the 39 million residents and the 251 million visitors per year.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.