Think California is ready for legal marijuana? Think again

Hybrid marijuana buds are shown at A Therapeutic Alternative in Sacramento. Thirty medical dispensaries in the city could eventually be licensed to sell recreational pot under Proposition 64, but it probably won’t happen by Jan. 1.
Hybrid marijuana buds are shown at A Therapeutic Alternative in Sacramento. Thirty medical dispensaries in the city could eventually be licensed to sell recreational pot under Proposition 64, but it probably won’t happen by Jan. 1. pkitagaki@sacbee.com

California is far from ready, but the green rush is nonetheless upon us.

On New Year’s Day, commercial sales of recreational cannabis will become legal for adults. No one knows exactly what will happen. There could be a mad dash to pot stores, not unlike the one to Walmart every Black Friday. Or, because medical marijuana has been legal in California for decades, people might take legalization in stride. Or 1/1 could become the new 4/20.

But here’s what everyone should know: The rollout is going to be an absolute mess – a mess that will last longer than a day.

For months now, ever since voters passed Proposition 64 in 2016, regulators have been doing the equivalent of building a plane while flying it, slapping together policies in hopes of crafting a viable, multibillion-dollar industry that doesn’t crash and burn on takeoff. They’ve worked hard, but hints of the coming chaos are everywhere.

On Wednesday, a mere five days before adults will be able to walk into a store and buy a drug that is still banned by the federal government, Sacramento’s pot czar Joe Devlin spent hours trying to understand the finer points of Proposition 64.

He wondered aloud, for example, how to enforce a new limit on how much pot a person can buy per day: “Does the dispensary have to create a customer account or do you just check ID? I don’t know how you prove you're not exceeding the daily limit without creating a customer account.”

He also had unanswered questions about the newly required state permits for medical dispensaries. None had arrived yet. “If we don’t get an answer from the state, what does that mean? Shut them down?” he asked. Most dispensaries also had yet to meet the new labeling requirements for edibles already on their shelves. There were no stickers.

“What I hoped to see today were a bunch of people who are ready,” Devlin told a Bee editorial board member. “What I see is a bunch of people who are getting ready.”

The same thing is happening all over California.

Take the pace of commercial licensing. Under Proposition 64, local governments were given power to decide how – and even if – cannabis should be sold or grown within their jurisdictions. Oakland and San Diego took advantage of that early.

But not everyone has been eager to be a guinea pig. Many city councils and boards of supervisors have refused to even discuss cannabis, and those that have often have been slow to enact regulations for it, complicating matters for the state Bureau of Cannabis Control, which is now dealing with a slew of last-minute applications for licenses.

Modesto, for example, waited until the week before Christmas to decide to start accepting applications for retail sales and should begin issuing licenses by February. Stores in Los Angeles won’t open for weeks, as the city won’t start taking applications until Jan. 3, and San Francisco is running behind, too. Even in Sacramento, where the City Council has been proactive, it’s likely only a few of the city’s 30 medical dispensaries will be able to start selling recreational pot by early January. They are waiting on the state.

There also has been uncertainty over cultivation in Calaveras and Yolo counties. And Sacramento and Kern counties banned commercial pot altogether.

It’s enough to worry Lori Ajax, California’s top pot regulator. She told the Los Angeles Times she fears the state hasn’t “licensed enough people throughout the supply chain, and geographically across the state, so people can continue to do business.”

She knows that shortages and bottlenecks will only fuel the black market. That, in turn, will undermine the viability of the fledgling legal market.

It also doesn’t help that California has yet to find a way to get banks involved so the industry can stop dealing in wads of cash, instead of credit cards and checking accounts like other businesses. Efforts by the Brown administration to do so have been unsuccessful, and U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is scaring away banks by hinting at a pointless federal crackdown on pot.

Ideas continue to surface about how to get smaller, regional banks to open accounts for state-licensed marijuana businesses, and then get those banks to work with larger, so-called “correspondent banks,” where accounts would be monitored by state inspectors. State Treasurer John Chiang, meanwhile, wants to create a government-owned bank that would serve cannabis businesses.

Both are good ideas, but this should have been worked out months ago. State policymakers must make this a top priority. With revenue projections of $7 billion, that’s a lot of opportunity for crime and missing tax revenue.

There are also lingering public health questions, a big reason we didn’t endorse Proposition 64.

For the past few weeks, local and state officials have been rushing to release information to educate Californians about the risks of using pot. How much is too much? What should first-timers take? What happens if kids use it? But there isn’t enough research to effectively answer those questions, another consequence of rushing to legalize weed.

So, on Monday, expect people to show up at stores unable to buy cannabis. And once they can buy it, expect some to drive while high. Expect car crashes, some fatal.

In the months to come, don’t be surprised if some pot delivery drivers and stores, with their wads of cash from customers, get robbed. Expect children to overdose on edibles left out by careless adults, and expect adults to overestimate their tolerance and get so high that they’ll end up having a panic attack or worse, scromiting, a syndrome in which regular weed users vomit uncontrollably.

In short, expect a mess.