‘Where are all the people?’ Capital crowds modest as California starts selling legal pot

Shortly after 9 a.m. on New Year’s Day, Mike Shorrow, a 63-year-old medical marijuana patient from Montana, pulled out a $100 bill and bought 4½ grams of pot, making him the first customer at the first licensed retail cannabis shop in California’s capital.

“That ate up that $100 fast,” said Shorrow as he took his weed from Danny Kress, dispensary manager of A Therapeutic Alternative on H Street. While shocked at the price he paid for marijuana, Shorrow was thrilled to be one of the first to buy recreational weed legally in the state.

He led a line of about 20 people in front of A Therapeutic Alternative. Similar sized crowds waited outside other Sacramento dispensaries on Monday morning, the date voters enshrined as the start of retail cannabis sales when they approved Proposition 64 in November 2016. Nine dispensaries in Sacramento have the state and city permits needed to sell recreational weed.

Across the state, about 100 businesses have state sales permits. Future growth will be limited in some places because of local government bans.

Dispensary owners reported that customer lines were longer than usual, compared to when the industry could sell only to adults with recommendations from doctors. But some owners and customers expressed disappointment that more people didn’t show up to celebrate legalization.

Dwayne and Sheila Wahl, visiting from Denver, recalled what happened in their home state of Colorado when it legalized retail marijuana sales on Jan. 1, 2014. There were lines around the block of the dispensaries and an excitement prevailed about a once-taboo plant becoming accepted by the government and the general public.

So when they showed up at Northstar Holistic Collective in Sacramento’s River District, they were a bit disappointed by the lack of crowds. A handful of people sat in the dispensary’s waiting room, and it took about 10 minutes for the Wahls to get hooked up with product – an eighth of an ounce of Zkittlez, which cost about $45.

“Where are all the people?” Dwayne Wahl said.

The city of Sacramento’s pot czar, Joe Devlin, drove to seven dispensaries Monday morning and reported seeing “no real crowds.”

“Maybe this isn’t a big deal anymore?” he said.

Some dispensaries reported long lines on Sunday of customers making end-of-the-year medical purchases before new taxes kicked in. Devlin said those purchases contributed to the lack of turnout for Monday’s legalization day. With legalization, the price of marijuana includes a new 15 percent state tax and any new city-specific taxes, which is 4 percent of gross receipts in Sacramento. Patients with a state-issued medical card get a waiver on the 8 percent sales tax.

Other parts of the state reported healthy crowds, including in San Diego and the Bay Area. Hundreds of people were reported waiting in line for sales at 6 a.m. at Oakland’s Harborside dispensary.

California may have a more muted reaction to legalization than other states because it has had legal medical marijuana since 1996 and a widespread sense that getting doctor approval for it is quite easy. Also, the state has the biggest marijuana black market in the country.

If the day didn’t produce a hoped-for sales bonanza, business was generally brisk – and the day was rich in meaning for longtime users and advocates who fought for legalization.

Kimberly Cargile, owner of A Therapeutic Alternative, and Nate Bradley, legislative advocate at the California Cannabis Association, participated in a short ribbon-cutting ceremony on the dispensary’s porch, to symbolically usher in the new era of legal marijuana sales. Cargile said she was nervous because she didn’t know what to expect, but also thrilled about legalization.

Many of the first buyers were longtime users, not cannabis rookies. Some said they had been buying marijuana on the street and were happy to be able to walk right into a regular store and obtain it legally.

At RCP Sacramento, a cannabis outlet in an industrial area off West El Camino in North Sacramento, 15 people lined up in the parking lot awaiting the 9 a.m. opening. Later in day the lines got longer, and people were waiting up to 20 minutes to make a purchase. Many of them were regular buyers of medicinal marijuana.

First in line was Gerard Logan, 72, of Orangevale, in denim jacket, blue jeans and black ball cap with U.S. Air Force lettering. He said he was ecstatic about the new law – and felt personally vindicated.

“I’ve been smoking marijuana since I was 19, and society said I was a criminal,” he said. “Today, they admit they were wrong.”

He previously bought marijuana, he said, on the black market, which he never liked. “It’s a hassle,” he said. “You have to take what they got.”

His plan, he said, was to buy an ounce of the best marijuana the outlet had. He’ll smoke it, he said, “as soon as I get home.”

Shorrow had a similar plan. He said he can’t buy medical marijuana in California with his Montana doctor’s recommendation. He lives in Elk Grove during the winter and will continue to buy recreational marijuana here because he’s uncomfortable buying it on the black market.

A woman who identified herself by her stage name of Mary Jane Love, 26, a R&B singer living in midtown, was among the early comers at All About Wellness, a cannabis shop at 19th and S streets, that has been in business as a medicinal outlet for eight years.

“I’ve been waiting for this day for a long time,” she said.

She has been buying marijuana on the streets, she said, using it to soothe her anxiety and to free her mind up for creative writing.

“I love it; it helps me relax,” she said of marijuana. She hopes it will mellow more people out. “I want people to love each other. Let’s be beautiful together.”

Phillip Blurton, owner of All About Wellness, said about 50 customers had showed up in the first hour or so on Monday, half of them medicinal marijuana customers, half recreational – a steady stream but not overwhelming.

“The recreational people are excited,” he said. “They feel like they are backstage at a big concert.”

Nate Bradley, co-founder of the California Cannabis Industry Association, visited several Sacramento outlets Monday morning.

“It definitely feels like the tide has changed” in terms of societal acceptance of marijuana, he said. Dispensaries now are “like any other store or pharmacy.”

“This is the nail in the coffin for shaming people for using cannabis.”