What Are Lawmakers Smoking?
Illustration by Darrick Rainey

What Are Lawmakers Smoking?

The first three months of legal weed for all Californians will be more like the Wild, Wild West than any politician, dispensary owner or recreational toker predicted.

Or, in the words of veteran L.A. pot lawyer Bruce Margolin, "What a mess."

At 12:01 a.m. Jan. 1, partaking in marijuana for purely recreational purposes became legal in the Golden State. But the state government didn't start issuing emergency licenses to sell recreational marijuana until mid-December. And dispensary owners need a local license as well as a state one.

Neither government entity is ready for legal marijuana.

On the state level, the California Bureau of Cannabis Control issued the state's first recreational license Dec. 15 to San Jose dispensary Buddy's Cannabis. Without rhyme or reason behind its picks, the state handed out 13 more recreational licenses on Dec. 15 to an eclectic group of dispensaries scattered around the state.

And on Jan. 1, the bureau said it had issued 400 licenses to cannabis operators throughout California. Many of the 400 are temporary, and those businesses must reapply for a permanent license by April 1.

California had at least 1,526,250 medical marijuana patients in 2016, according to the Marijuana Policy Project. Who knows how many recreational smokers are out there, but marijuana industry leaders know there aren't enough dispensaries coming online to handle the load.

Alex Traverso, state Cannabis Control's communications director, told Bay Area News Channel 4, "We're going to continue to issue licenses and see how the market does, but I think we're going to have a lot of people get in the game."

On the local level, only 30 percent of the state's cities and counties have rules in place to deal with recreational marijuana.

In Los Angeles, the city wasn't even going to start taking recreational pot dispensary applications until Jan. 3 — three days after the new law went into effect. And even then, the first local licenses are going to the 134 medical marijuana dispensaries that have been operating under city rules under Proposition D since June 20, 2013, said Cat Packer, director of the city's Department of Cannabis Regulation. Another 70 or so related pot businesses might qualify under Proposition D, which provides for limited immunity from prosecution for about 200 pot dispensaries and ancillary businesses.

Even with those 70, longtime movers and shakers in the marijuana industry say there won't be enough legal dispensaries to serve the locals, never mind the expected tourist influx of out-of-state tokers expected to flock to California for a taste of the state's homegrown ganga.

"This is something that is not going to happen overnight," Packer told reporters at a hastily called news conference on Dec. 22.

The timeline is so unpredictable that it could be months before some Los Angeles marijuana entrepreneurs can even apply for a license, much less get one. That means that growers may not get licenses in time to supply pot shops. And that means demand will exceed the legal supply, forcing prices up, said Dale Gieringer, Oakland-based director of California National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

"The situation in Los Angeles is unclear," Gieringer said. "Prices are going to go up and who knows if anyone is going to be open in L.A."

Example A: Kelsey Barney, marketing director of the popular Rose Collective on Rose Avenue in Venice, had planned to open her shop's doors to all tokers at 8 a.m. on New Year's Day. But she pushed back the opening to Jan. 3 "for now," she said, a result of not yet having received her state or local license.

But the delay is nothing to worry about, Barney said. The voters have spoken and "we're very excited to serve the new community of marijuana users," she said. "We're happy for a whole new group of people to try cannabis for sleep, stress relief and medicinal reasons."

Not so fast, said Osiris Santos of Americann Made, a pot management firm representing growers and dispensary owners in L.A., San Diego, Palm Springs, Desert Hot Springs, San Francisco and Oakland.

Santos said he's told his employees and clients to continue operating under the old rules, selling only to patients, not fun partakers.

"We cross all our t's and dot all our i's. It keeps us in business," Santos said. "We don't get raided. Slow and steady wins the race."

Although recreational pot is legal, Santos said, "Prohibition is not ending. The whole industry is in transition. Jan. 1 is one of many steps. There are many curves ahead."

So many curves that attorney Margolin, who has spent 50 years defending people busted for pot, believes it will be at least three months before the state and Los Angeles have their collective acts together to make recreational sales work.

"It's a big problem that can't be simplified because there are layers of laws in place," Margolin said. "[Proposition] 215 (medicinal) is affected by Proposition 64 (recreational). There's AB266 (non-patients buying for patients) and SB420, which is in place for collectives and co-ops to provide for patients only. Each city and and county has to decide what portion of the legislation they want to follow."

For example, the city of Malibu has two medical marijuana dispensaries that have conditional-use permits, said Malibu senior planner Stephanie Hawner. The city is looking into allowing the dispensaries to deliver.  

Malibu is working on a new ordinance that will look at whether recreational marijuana distribution will be limited to the two approved dispensaries, and to what extent commercial cultivation will be allowed, Hawner said.

While Malibu wrestles with recreational pot, another much larger government body has its head stuck in the sand. 

"L.A. County hasn't done anything," Margolin said. "It's terrible because it denies access to patients and recreational users. I think cities and counties are waiting for the state shoe to drop before they issue licenses."

Meanwhile, over in Palm Springs, the City Council voted Nov. 15 to allow pot smoking lounges. And then on Dec. 6, it adopted an ordinance to allow marijuana-centric resorts.

City attorney Edward Kotkin said people have approached Palm Springs officials about opening a "bud and breakfast. I'm sure someone is going to apply." The ordinance would allow that, although it doesn't specifically state it.

Currently there are six licensed medical marijuana dispensaries in Palm Springs and applications pending for 17 more pot businesses including "dispensaries, cultivators, distributors and a variety of other uses," Kotkin said. "Palm Springs has been and is one of the most progressive cities in California. We think marijuana businesses will be good corporate citizens and fit into the fabric of the community."

Palm Springs may be moving at warp speed. But much of the state has been slothlike, and that concerns Chris Lindsey, legislative counsel for the Marijuana Policy Project in California.

"We're between systems now," Lindsey said. "Will Jan. 1 mark a new world or will we still be in a world where we're in between (medical and recreational)? California has a number of new laws and there are a lot of moving parts. It's going to be an interesting start. It may take three to six months before things shake out and people know what's going on."

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