Subscribe

Recreational pot sales begin in Sonoma County

Brian Jordan of Novato, right, makes the first recreational marijuana purchase in Sonoma County at Mercy Wellness of Cotati on Monday, Jan. 1, 2018. (JOHN BURGESS/ PD)

PAUL PAYNE,

Brian Jordan set out early New Year’s Day to do something he’d been sneaking around to do since the 1970s — buy some pot.

The retired Novato postal worker drove to a Cotati’s Mercy Wellness dispensary and just after 9 a.m. became the first in Sonoma County to purchase marijuana for recreational use without breaking California law.

“They’re finally doing it after all these years,” said Jordan, 63, before plunking down $96 for 10 grams of Candy Jack at the Redwood Drive dispensary. “This is so convenient.”

Jordan was among the throngs of adults who visited three Sonoma County dispensaries Monday to exercise their right to buy pot just to get high under voter-approved Proposition 64.

The end of prohibition brought the region’s storied cannabis industry out of the shadows and into a marketplace expected to reach $7 billion statewide. Consumers eager to buy their first legal weed headed out early, hoping to beat the crowds. When the door opened at Mercy Wellness at 9 a.m., about 15 rushed in, shopping elbow to elbow while inspecting strains with names like Granddaddy Purple and My Little Pony in glass display cases, along with edibles, tinctures, lotions and concentrates.

Dispensary employees looked on from cash registers with digital “now serving” signs mounted on the walls.

Mercy Wellness’ production manager, Kyle Monday, beamed as many first-time customers — from accountants to schoolteachers — indulged in buying pot without fear of breaking the law.

“It’s like a new beginning,” Monday said. “A new birth. This is our Fourth of July.”

Across the county in Sebastopol, a similar line formed outside SPARC/Peace in Medicine, which opened at 10:30 a.m.

Customers sipped free coffee and munched pistachio biscotti provided by the dispensary while waiting to take advantage of Proposition 64, approved statewide by voters in 2016 allowing recreational sales of pot.

Marc Harris, 62 of Santa Rosa, stood in a line that snaked into the parking lot with his wife, Stormy Knight. He recalled his first-ever bud purchase: in a Los Angeles park more than four decades ago. Back then, he kept a wary eye out for police.

Not anymore.

“I’ve been waiting for this for a long time,” said Harris, an internet marketer. “It’s just mind boggling.”

Advocates had been anticipating the day for years, long before marijuana was legalized for medical use in the state in 1996. Twenty years later, voters took the next step, largely decriminalizing cannabis and allowing for the commercial sale of products to adults 21 or older.

Erich Pearson, chief executive officer of SPARC, said Monday was a day for celebration. But he said much work still needs to be done, including developing consistent regulations across the state’s 58 counties as well as reducing sales taxes and other fees. Those add up to 40 percent to the cost to consumers, he said.

“We have to work that out and find the sweet spot,” Pearson said.

Also still to be decided are rules for adult-use sales in Santa Rosa and the unincorporated county. Santa Rosa will permit adult-use sales beginning Jan. 19. County supervisors will consider proposals later this year.

Other cities including Healdsburg, Petaluma and Rohnert Park have banned marijuana dispensaries altogether.

The Golden State expects to rake in an estimated $1 billion in taxes each year from cannabis businesses. In Sonoma County, officials are anticipating $3.6 million in revenue from pot business taxes in the fiscal year that ends in June.

California is the eighth state to enable marijuana’s recreational use and commerce. Another 21 states allow some degree of medical use. But marijuana is still illegal under federal law, and considered a controlled substance without recognized health benefit.

Last year, California produced at least 13.5 million pounds of pot, but consumed only an estimated 2.5 million pounds. The rest, presumably, left the state.

Meanwhile, the new beginning was greeted with enthusiasm on a clear, crisp New Year’s Day that drew people bundled in heavy coats to wait for the county’s three dispensaries selling pot without a doctor’s prescription to open.

Laura Zink, 47 of Santa Rosa, set her alarm clock to get up early. Zink, an accountant, said she was pleased something that has been such a “big part of the economy but is so hush-hush” was being legitimized.

“It feels great,” said Zink, as she waited outside Mercy Wellness with about 15 others. “I’m surprised there aren’t a whole lot more people here.”

You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 707-521-5250 or paul.payne@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ppayne.