Is Weed Legal In California? Sort of

Though pot became legal in California on January 1st, it's still unclear what that means – and how Jeff Sessions' recent statements might change that

Technically, pot was to be available to all adults in California as of January 1st. But is it? Credit: Mathew Sumner/AP

For California's cannabis enthusiasts, the week began triumphantly and ended in panic. On Monday, the Golden State celebrated its first day of legal marijuana sales – a joyful occasion that had taken the sustained work of activists, the slow creep of changing public opinion, several years of legislative debate and ultimately over $20 million dollars to accomplish. But then, on Thursday morning, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced he was rescinding a series of Department of Justice memos that provided guidance on when the federal government would interfere with places that chose to legalize cannabis, immediately creating an increased sense of instability, chaos and anger along the West Coast. So what the hell just happened? And where does this leave the current state of legal weed in California?

For starters, experts say the most relevant memo eliminated by Sessions – the 2013 Cole Memorandum — would likely not have even protected California's current marijuana environment from a federal crackdown. The memo outlined what a state needed to do if it wanted to legalize pot: specifically, in order to avoid the DEA from busting in on large, state-licensed producers of cannabis, the state would need to "implement strong and effective regulatory and enforcement systems."

California has not done that, and has never been able to do that. In spite of Monday's blandishments about "legal" pot, California's marijuana economy remains so utterly messy and confusing that the state did not even fall under the limited protections provided by the 2013 Cole Memo. Partly for that reason, some in California say that this latest news will not change anything.

"I think it's a false alarm," says cannabis attorney Henry Wykowski, who famously defended Oakland mega-dispensary Harborside Health Center in federal court, and was the first person to purchase legal weed there on Monday. "I guess they felt they had to react to all the publicity about Monday, but I don't think this will affect California. I don't think this is going to motivate any responsible prosecutors to take any action."

But others believe that Sessions has now opened the door for federal prosecutors to initiate legal proceedings against state-legal marijuana businesses whenever they feel like it.

"Certainly U.S. attorneys have their own political and prosecutorial agendas, so I think we are going to see selective enforcement, and that's really scary," says marijuana attorney Hilary Bricken. "I think Sessions would have been happy to pursue California even with the tightest regulations on the planet, but starting off the way we did I don't think helped the situation."

And how did California's era of legal marijuana start off, exactly? Well, to understand that, let's look quickly at how we got here. Most people are vaguely aware of the fact that cannabis has existed in a weird limbo in California for the past 21 years – not quite legal and yet not quite illegal. Since the passage of Proposition 215 in 1996, potheads and sick folks alike could plunk down as little as $30 in exchange for a five-minute meeting with a dubiously accredited physician who gives you a quick once-over before reflexively signing a document attesting to your medical need for marijuana. (Shout-out to the consummate professional who reviewed my paperwork last year, saw that I had listed "menstrual cramps" as my reason for wanting cannabis, and commented that I must be "a real bitch" when I'm on my period.) Then, all you had to do was mosey on over to one of the state's estimated 3,000 storefront medical marijuana dispensaries, or place an order with one of several thousand delivery services, and you could get high at home in peace.

Eventually, it became possible – but not legal – for out-of-state stoners to obtain doctor's recommendations as well, and anyone with some strong Google skills could find a pot shop willing to sell to someone lacking a California driver's license. Because, at the end of the day, none of the hundred thousand or so medical marijuana businesses in California were licensed or regulated by the state, anyway. Most are, and were, technically considered illegal – subject to prosecution or raids even with the Cole Memo in place, because, again, the state lacked "strong and effective regulatory and enforcement systems." Only a few cities and counties offered local permits or rules to follow, and even those modest regulations were often violated on a massive scale. It was a complicated and unstable situation in which even law enforcement felt genuinely confused about what was allowed.

Then, in late 2015, the state legislature passed a set of regulations meant to clean up the medical industry, and in late 2016, voters passed Proposition 64, legalizing recreational use. Both of those laws were written with the goal of meeting the guidelines outlined Cole Memo, and both went into effect on January 1st, 2018. And by "went into effect" I mean "got the ball rolling for anyone lucky enough to live in a pot-friendly city or county." In reality, not much has changed since December. The only businesses able to obtain temporary state licenses are the ones that already have local licenses. At least 97 percent of pot businesses in the state of California remain unlicensed. There are currently zero legal marijuana businesses in the cities of Los Angeles or San Francisco.

So here we are, less than a week into legalization, and navigating the details of what is and isn't legal remains rather difficult for nearly everyone involved. Truth be told, I felt such apprehension about what might happen when the clock struck midnight on January 1st that I dropped about $360 at one of my favorite medical marijuana dispensaries the day before, hoping to stock up. The woman who checked my doctor's recommendation told me the shop would be closing indefinitely come 2018, but the budtender who measured out my pot insisted they would remain open.

This isn't uncommon for Los Angeles: Jerred Kiloh, the president of L.A.'s United Cannabis Business Association, told me that 10 to 15 medical dispensaries in his group had shut down on January 1st, so as to avoid putting themselves at a disadvantage once local licensing finally begins. "There wasn't a clear 'Yes,'" he said, regarding whether the Los Angeles Police Department was going to abruptly start raiding medical dispensaries that lacked local permits – i.e. all of them.

Most experts think it will take at least two years for the state to convert to a functional system. No one thinks this process will be easy. And now that the feds have made it even easier for federal prosecutors to take action against marijuana businesses nationwide, things could get even more complicated. In the mean time, here are the answers to some key questions.

Can anyone over 21 just walk into any marijuana dispensary and buy pot?
Not really! As of this writing, there are only 113 storefront marijuana dispensaries with full permission from the state to conduct legal adult-use sales. Remember: that's out of an estimated total of 3,000 pot shops in the state. There are not yet legal shops in the cities of Los Angeles and San Francisco, though that could change in the coming weeks. For now, if you find yourself in L.A., head to West Hollywood. If you're in S.F., try Berkeley or Oakland.

A bunch of other shops are illegally conducting "legal" sales (I know! It's a mess out here) by advertising themselves as "Prop 64 compliant" or just by willfully ignoring the rules. Grab some popcorn while we see how long it takes for local, state, or federal law enforcement to crack down on these businesses!

How do I know if my local pot shop has a temporary license to operate legally?
Do some poking around with this handy-dandy license search tool put out by the state's new Bureau of Cannabis Control. Just remember that right now legal businesses only have temporary licenses, and that the name on a business' paperwork might not be the exact same as the name on the storefront.

Where is it okay for me to smoke?
Basically, for now you are limited to using cannabis on private property, where the owner is okay with it. But worry not! By the end of the year there will likely be legal lounges in cities like West Hollywood, Palm Springs, and San Francisco.

How much will it cost?
Considering the added taxes, legal weed currently costs about as much as an illegal eighth on the east coast – about $50 to $60. Prices will likely go down over the course of the next year, though.

I'm a tourist! What should I buy?
Depends on your experience level! Talk to your budtender about what kind of high you want, and hopefully he or she will have some advice on strains. If you're looking for unique products you probably can't find on the black market in your state, you might want to pick up some low-dose edibles (divided into servings of five milligrams or fewer), some products that contain both THC and CBD, or some topical creams and salves. Topicals don't get you high, even if they contain THC, and they can be incredibly helpful for sore muscles or arthritis or other localized pain. If you're a total n00b, or haven't used cannabis in a few years, don't eat more than five milligrams of THC, and maybe give this a read.

I live in Cali! Do I need to renew my medical recommendation?
If you live near a shop that has a temporary license for adult-use sales, you don't need to wade back into the lair of one of those janky pot-recommending doctors, but you might want to. Taxes on adult-use cannabis in some municipalities will be around 40 percent. Being a medical marijuana patient will allow you to get out of some of those taxes, possess more pot and buy stronger edibles. But here's the rub: in order to qualify, you'll need a state medical marijuana ID card in addition to your doctor's rec. That will involve an additional errand to your county health department and a possible additional fee: at most, the card will set you back $100, or $50 if you're on Medi-Cal. ID cards are free for indigent folks through the County Medical Services Program. Oh, and unlike the current sham system of pot doctors, not everyone can just waltz in and get a state ID card for pot. Expect to be vetted.

Is this weed different from the medical weed that was for sale on December 31st?
It's exactly the same weed.

Is the whole supply chain regulated now?
Nope! Not at all. California will have rather strict safety standards for its cannabis products in place by next year, but for now, it's still pretty much an anything-goes environment. So you won't have any guarantee that, say, that vape pen cartridge is free from concentrated toxic pesticides for another six months at a minimum.

What kinds of things could still get me in trouble?
Lighting up in public. Driving while high. Driving after having used cannabis any time in the past few days .(That's how bad the science is on testing for marijuana in someone's system.) Driving with a half-smoked joint or an unsealed jar of weed anywhere in the main part of the car. (Always keep cannabis products in your trunk.) Growing or selling or manufacturing any kind of cannabis product without both a local and state license. Selling to anyone under 21. Growing more than six of your own pot plants at home. Growing or smoking at home if it pisses off your landlord. Using cannabis if you have a job that drug tests.

Who will end up disproportionately arrested and ticketed for all of the infractions listed above?
In every other place that has legalized or decriminalized cannabis, the overall number of arrests and tickets for pot-related activity has gone down, but the racial breakdown within those arrests has become more extreme. Meaning: people of all races will continue to break the law in California, and people of color will continue to be much, much more likely to get arrested. The more things change, the more they stay the same.