Recreational pot is officially legal in California

California launched the world's largest regulated commercial market for recreational marijuana on Monday, as dozens of newly-licensed stores opened for business in the state.
A packet of cannabis on a shelve at the Harborside cannabis dispensary in Oakland, California.
A packet of cannabis on a shelve at the Harborside cannabis dispensary in Oakland, California.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

OAKLAND, California (NYTimes) - Retail cannabis shops in California opened their doors on Monday (Jan 1) for the first time, inaugurating what proponents say will become the world's largest market for legalised recreational marijuana.

A transaction that remains illegal in many parts of the country seemed almost banal Monday for the customers at a dispensary in Oakland who picked out their marijuana, showed their driver's licenses and walked into the brisk morning air with their drugs in a paper bag.

"This is a whole new world opening up," said Diana Gladden, 48, who bought marijuana for herself and her ageing parents.

"My mother, a very strict Southern Baptist, now thinks it's OK because it's legal."

One customer left with more than US$1,000 (S$1,335) worth of cannabis in a large grocery bag.

Medical marijuana has been legal in California for more than two decades but the arrival of full legalisation in the state is a milestone for the nation's fast-growing cannabis industry. Pot is now sold legally down the entire length of the West Coast, plus Alaska.

A slow and halting rollout of California's new cannabis regulations limited the number of shops offering the drug on Monday to just a handful of cities across the state, including Berkeley, Oakland, San Jose and San Diego. But more municipalities, including San Francisco and Los Angeles, are expected to issue licenses soon.

Alex Traverso, a spokesman for California's Bureau of Cannabis Control, said around 100 dispensaries in the state were licensed to sell recreational cannabis on Monday.

Outside the dispensary in Oakland nearly 200 people waited in line before dawn for the 6 a.m. start of sales.

"Happy New Year!" Steve DeAngelo, executive director of the dispensary, shouted through a bullhorn.

"We've been looking forward to this day for a long time."

But in a state where marijuana has been widely available for so long, the enthusiasm was relatively muted. Outside a dispensary in neighbouring Berkeley only a handful of customers waited in line before sales began.

California is the sixth state to introduce the sale of recreational marijuana, after Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska and Nevada. Massachusetts and potentially Maine are expected to begin sales this year.

Legalisation here may further raise tensions between the state and federal drug enforcement officials led by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a vocal opponent of legalisation. The federal Drug Enforcement Administration considers marijuana a Schedule 1 drug, the same category as heroin.

National opinion polls have shown a gradual and steady approval of legalisation.

Californians voted for recreational use of the drug by a 57-43 per cent margin in a November 2016 ballot initiative. The law prohibits smoking in public, although such bans are already commonplace in California cities.

Unlike the other states that have legalised, California has a vast industry producing the drug, much of which is illegally sold across state lines. By one estimate, California produces seven times more marijuana than it consumes.

Legalisation here will test whether that vast black market of growers, many of whom have been reluctant to join the legal market, will come out of the shadows.

It is unclear how much legalisation will increase consumption of the drug in California. Since 1996 marijuana has been available from medical dispensaries for adults with an easily obtainable recommendation card. And even those without medical cards have had little fear of prosecution.

It has been many years since police officers in California made arrests for possession of small amounts of marijuana, according to Jennifer Tejada, chairwoman of the law and legislative committee of the California Police Chief Association.

Jonathan Duenas, a college student and one of the cannabis customers in Oakland on Monday, said he had come for the novelty but probably would not return.

"I have a friend who grows it," he said. "I can get it much cheaper."

Even as more cities in California prepare to issue cannabis licences, a number of questions remain about the effects and implementation of the new laws.

The head of the Bureau of Cannabis Control has raised concerns that there may not be enough licensed cannabis distributors in the early days of retail sales.

A similarly bumpy rollout took place in Nevada in July when Governor Brian Sandoval took emergency measures to combat a shortage of legal marijuana soon after legal sales began.

Opponents of legalisation warn that California could see an increase in traffic deaths, as appears to have happened in Colorado since stores in that state began selling recreational cannabis four years ago.

Traffic deaths in Colorado involving drivers who tested positive for marijuana more than doubled from 2013 to 2016, according to a study published by a federal government agency in October. The report also noted a 35 per cent increase in emergency room visits related to marijuana.

California has not yet adopted a standard measure for marijuana impairment, an issue highlighted on Christmas Eve when a California highway patrolman was killed after a man whom police said was driving under the influence of both alcohol and marijuana rammed into the back of the officer's vehicle.