Brave new world: Legal pot sales begin Jan. 1 in Sonoma County
An end to cannabis prohibition has arrived in California, and the best advice around for newcomers involves moderation. In other words, don’t eat the whole cookie.
Starting today, adults can buy cannabis without physician recommendations at some dispensaries in the state. In Sonoma County, the doors are opening to anyone 21 and older at two dispensaries in Sebastopol and a third in Cotati.
Jan. 1 is the start of a new era for California’s projected $7 billion cannabis marketplace - the nation’s largest - one being reshaped by taxes and bureaucracy, shedding the trappings of its outlaw roots. On the North Coast, officials and industry leaders hope to capitalize on the Emerald Triangle’s historic role as the state’s prime cannabis-growing region built over generations.
“The era of Prohibition is over. The voice of the voter won the day and recreational cannabis will now be legal,” said State Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, whose North Coast district runs from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Oregon border. “This is going to be the largest cannabis market in North America that has been brought out of the shadows and into the light of a regulated system.”
Since November 2016 when voters passed Prop. 64, adults have been able to lawfully consume pot for nonmedical uses. Today is the first day when adults can walk into a store and buy it.
Marijuana’s legalization will invite a new consumer unfamiliar with the various ways to ingest it, and to the different effects. It’s easy to overdo it for the uninitiated, especially with cannabis-infused edibles like cookies.
Many dispensaries across California will be forced to turn customers without medical marijuana recommendations away until the stores receive state-issued temporary licenses for adult-use sales. Shops in Santa Rosa and unincorporated Sonoma County don’t yet have permission. SPARC/Peace in Medicine and Solful in Sebastopol and Mercy Wellness in Cotati are open for nonmedical sales today.
California 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 new cannabis business taxes in the fiscal year that ends in June. That figure is about $300,000 less than earlier estimates before the destructive October fires damaged about 110,000 square feet of crops in the county.
For those involved in the industry, Jan. 1 is monumental and full of mixed emotions.
“There are some winners and losers in the way the money moves, the way the business is taking shape,” said Erich Pearson, founder of SPARC dispensary in San Francisco, which has taken over Peace in Medicine in Santa Rosa and Sebastopol. “But at the end of the day, we’re going to have fewer people in jail, specifically people from communities of color disproportionately affected by the drug war.”
Activists long banging the drum, and fighting battles in court, to get people with AIDS and cancer the right to use cannabis worry the recreational market may make it harder for truly ill people to access affordable marijuana. Entrepreneurs determined to legitimize the production of California’s most lucrative crop say the cost of complying with new rules and taxes will lead many businesses to fail.
The cost for one-eighth ounce of dried cannabis flower could rise about 40 percent, at least initially, at some dispensaries from excise and sales taxes before large-scale production pushes prices down. In Cotati, Mercy Wellness founder Brandon Levine said the tax on a one-eighth ounce of dried flower will more than double, raising the total from about $28 to nearly $40.
The breadth of inventory on the shelves may decrease while cultivators, tincture makers, extract makers and others apply for licenses. Over time, the type of longtime cultivator growing cannabis in extra rooms or tucked-away gardens may gradually give it up as corporate farms gain traction.
In 1996, California voters passed Proposition 215 decriminalizing medical marijuana’s use. San Francisco activist Dennis Peron, 72, helped write the voter initiative and is credited with founding the movement, one that was closely tied to the AIDS epidemic and the way cannabis eased symptoms of the disease.
“I am glad to see it legalized in my lifetime,” said Peron, who has been arrested many times for possession and cultivation. “That was my goal 50 years ago. America moves slowly, but it moves.”
Until now, the state had no regulations for marijuana’s production, sale or distribution, adding to decadeslong tension between cultivators and law enforcement. And with marijuana production so prolific on the North Coast, robbery and violence have been closely tied to its production. Legal or not, it’s a cash industry. Most banks, federally insured, won’t work with cannabis businesses because of the threat of a costly audit.