Predating the green rush of legalization, California was long known as the cannabis haven of the United States. Personally, growing up as a kid in a rural midwestern town in the US, the west coast filled my mind with stories with grandeur. For many across the country and spanning the globe, the vibe of Southern California produces images of gathering around a beach bonfire to pass around a couple of joints after catching some dank swells. Up north, the Emerald Triangle is reputed as the pot Land of Oz (as in, ounces). It’s all palm trees, misty forests, Volkswagen vans and private reserve. In 1996, California became the first state to establish a medical marijuana program and became the first state to vote on recreational legalization in 1972 with Proposition 19. It has now been a full year since residents of the Golden State passed the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, and evidence from sales may be drawing our attention to the man behind the curtain.
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So, here are the stats:
— Estimated 2018 sales at licensed dispensaries and delivery services: $2.5 billion.
— Breakdown of sales at dispensaries, by category: buds, 39 percent; concentrates, 33 percent; edibles, 16 percent; pre-rolled, 8 percent; topicals, 2 percent; accessories, 2 percent.
— Number of cultivation licenses: 4,795
— Number of retail storefronts: 531
— Distributors: 996
— Testing labs: 52
Sources: BDS Analytics; California Bureau of Cannabis Control; California Department of Food and Agriculture
At face value, these appear to be solid numbers. Only when looking a bit deeper does one begin to see the cracks in the foundation. The $2.5 billion in sales generated $471 million of tax revenue, which is by all means not a miniscule amount of money, but it is less than the $630 million of revenue projected in Gov. Jerry Brown’s budget, and far less than the $1 billion a year as predicted by state officials. This revenue discrepancy appears to be partially due to many California cities banning cannabis sales. According to the California Cannabis Industry Association, less than 20% (89 of 482) cities allow cannabis sales for recreational use, with 82 of the 88 cities in Los Angeles County alone under recreational prohibition.
Those starting canna-businesses in pot-friendly parts of the state still face uphill battles. With tax markups on legal sales of more than 34% including excise, city and sales tax, the black market is continuing to thrive, accounting for up to 80% of marijuana sales. In contrast, Oregon state and local taxes on pot are capped at 20%. California state officials also estimated to license up to 6,000 shops within the first few years, which is far more than the 531 that have been licensed thus far. To put that into perspective, California holds a tenth of the nation’s population, but both Oregon and Alaska have more licensed recreational pot shops per capita, 601 and 94, respectively.
So the question is: Is California still the Emerald City of pot? Every election cycle, more states enact marijuana legalization. Many did so before California’s Prop 64, giving them years worth of a head start in refining their policies. The Golden State may have once led the legislative charge, but other states have since caught up and then some.
Those loyal to their soil might even argue that California never was America’s pot capital. Colorado and Washington have certainly gained pioneer reputations, Michigan is the first state in the Midwest to recreationally legalize cannabis, and Las Vegas, Nevada is home to Planet 13, the world’s largest recreational marijuana dispensary.
I took a trip to Planet 13 recently and after all of the hype, it was cool for what it was but it wasn’t all that. Although, it was certainly exciting to visit a dispensary at this scale, see people take pictures both outside and inside the building and change the colors of the massive LED lotus flowers on the roof. According to one of the receptionists, a room near the front will soon be dedicated for customers to chill and sample the products they’ve bought. It’s a rad place to stop by (I’d recommend going after 12 a.m. to scope out the after-midnight deals), but it’s essentially just an extra large dispensary featuring a few visually captivating screens.
What it stands for, though, is far greater. The customer experience matters. Nevada legalized recreational cannabis in 2016, the same year as California, and it seems that in some ways the Silver State has embraced its new legislation more so than its western neighbor, at least in Las Vegas. My brother, cousin and I took a while perusing the store, checking out the display counters, staring at the lighted ceiling and talking to budtenders, because apparently you can do that there. Other dispensaries, such as Essence Las Vegas, offer the same atmosphere at a smaller scale. Cut to me visiting People’s OC in Santa Ana, California, a similarly large dispensary with a similarly curated menu, similarly set-up display booths and similar social media presence and billboard advertising. I checked in and began looking around for about five minutes before it was brought to my attention that looking around isn’t normally allowed in the store, that it’s more of a go-straight-to-the-counter-and-ignore-the-display-case-that-we-meticulously-crafted kind of vibe.
To the east, in Riverside County, it’s mostly delivery services that still operate on the lowkey. Dispensaries get closed down and reopen under different names in slightly different locations before being permanently shuttered. When they are open, it’s not uncommon to enter an experience of bulletproof glass, bars on the windows and 10x10 waiting rooms with no air conditioning filled to standing room only. Like waiting inside a mouth that’s also a fire hazard. I briefly worked for a deliv-spensary that operated in a van down by the river out of a trailer in a secluded location. Many locations are listed on Weedmaps as “churches” with full online menus in attempt to evade law enforcement, sparking its own legal dilemma. I lift your name on high. And you can still find someone off of the Santa Monica Pier trying to sell tourists some of that “legal” California herb. While large concentrations of the big cities, including San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego, have acted swiftly on embracing recreational legalization, much of the rest of the state is still skeptical, and a sense of taboo can still be felt.
What’s vital to remember though is that no state so far has implemented a completely flawless marijuana policy right out of the gate. Cannabis businesses continue to face banking obstacles, Michigan isn’t granting marijuana business licenses for at least a year after the ballot initiative went into effect and Oregon police had a scandal involving using thermal imaging scanning to illegally search the home of a cannabis grower (visit dannyleekyllo.com for some sick flash animated backstory).
Legalization remains largely uncharted territory. Much there is to be discovered about what the future of cannabis will look like. By adapting what works, scrapping what doesn’t and refining as necessary, progress will sustain. In the meantime, I guess we can always blame California’s slowish rollout on the traffic.
The west is wild,
By RJ Blade
RJ Balde is a freelance writer, host, actor, performer, having worked in cannabis writing and advocacy for the last decade. RJ has worked with numerous organizations and media companies in cannabis writing, show hosting, and advocacy, including Airtime, Eaze, SDA Media, TRICHOMES.com, and WeedTube.