Sorry, Denver — L.A. Has Always Been America's Marijuana Capital

Once legal recreational marijuana sales begin in California in 2018, Los Angeles almost certainly will be the nation's largest recreational pot market. That market has been described as "a $25 billion opportunity" — leading to such headlines as "Will a California City Replace Denver as the Cannabis Capital?" and "Will Denver Be Replaced as America’s Marijuana Capital?"

But even without recreational sales, California and L.A. have long dominated the marijuana market.

There are 943 medical and recreational marijuana retail outlets registered in the entire state of Colorado, according to that state's Department of Revenue. The California Board of Equalization has counted 935 "active cannabis businesses [medical dispensaries] in the city of Los Angeles" alone — most of them illegal. And that's not including L.A. County; though dispensaries are banned in unincorporated pockets of the county (where pot shops often defy the law anyway), multiple cities, including West Hollywood, allow them.

What's more, experts have estimated that there are more like 1,500-plus dispensaries in Los Angeles, the vast majority of them unregistered with the city and state. While there could be illicit shops in Colorado, too, Los Angeles is believed to be the nation's largest marijuana market and has been since the mid-’00s, when critics of pot shops argued that there were more dispensaries than Starbucks in town.

According to Forbes, "By some estimates, Los Angeles' medical marijuana market alone is already close to $1 billion, easily overshadowing Colorado’s entire market."

"Los Angeles is without a doubt the largest cannabis marketplace in the world," says attorney Aaron Herzberg of Orange County–based CalCann Holdings, a California medical marijuana real estate company. "I've always said this."

Following the passage of 1996's groundbreaking California medical pot law and state guidelines for medical cannabis sellers in 2004, the number of unlicensed medical pot shops mushroomed in L.A. Entrepreneurs realized city regulation and enforcement at the time were weak.

The difference between California and Colorado, of course, is that the Colorado shops can sell recreational weed to anyone of age. Soon that will be the case here, too.

The nation's first legal recreational pot sales began in Denver in 2014. National news organizations — not to mention recreational pot consumers, including tourists — couldn't get enough of the Mile High City and its cannabis culture. Colorado was the new pot darling, no matter how much medical weed business was taking place in the nation's second-largest city. You still needed a $40 doctor's note and a lame medical excuse to buy weed legally in Los Angeles. And technically, only a maximum 135 dispensaries were supposed to be operating in the city, drawing a cloak of secrecy around the majority of L.A.'s pot shops and stifling much of its pot culture.

Still, Los Angeles, even under medical marijuana rules, out-tokes Denver by a long shot. By some estimates, California supplies the nation with much of its weed. And now that L.A. will be joining the recreational game next year, some of those same news organizations are starting to recognize that L.A. truly is the nation's marijuana capital.

"I think what happened was that by legalizing recreational cannabis, Denver became a hub of innovation and sort of the Silicon Valley of marijuana entrepreneurship, and money started pouring in," Herzberg says. "With California recreational legalization, there are going to be more business opportunities in L.A. than really any other geographic location in the country or the world."

The scene at the Emerald Exchange farmers market last yearEXPAND
The scene at the Emerald Exchange farmers market last year
Star Foreman/L.A. Weekly

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