The Wild West Revisited

California opened the door to recreational marijuana on Jan. 1. But the devil’s in the details of the law, and the not-so-golden state of more than a million acres of land.

The Wild West Revisited

“PROHIBITION ENDS AT LAST!” screams the cover of the latest LA Weekly, the one dated Jan. 1, 2018 — 84 years after the end of the genuine article, in December 1933. The cover of the popular alt-weekly was a bit over the top; Californians have been finding ways around restrictive marijuana laws for years — even as the country incrementally evolved its own position on recreational use. Like the original from the 1930s, the pot prohibition that ended with the year 2017 was, practically speaking, never much of a “prohibition” in the first place.

But there’s no denying that California, the Avatar State, is entering its own truly uncharted territory, a realm of civic experience that will change the cultural, economic and political landscape of the state that lays claim to the sixth-largest economy in the world.

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Call it the Golden Rush: Like that first heady bloom of a high-potency hybrid, Cali is a bit ... staggered right now by all this. The patchwork of laws and regulations, and the slow speed of city and state lawmakers to get things done have helped make the post-Jan. 1 period what we should have already known it would be: A process and not an event.

Recreational smokers in California (and everywhere in the country, for that matter) have always worked around that, like a weed that winds its way through a fence. But coming in the wake of serial historic wildfires, the availability and affordability of recreational herb in California will ultimately have as much to do with the land as with the law.

The change on Jan. 1 included dire warnings from the Los Angeles Police Department, which advised people to follow “the rules,” which generally consist of not using marijuana or its derivatives in the same common-sense situations that historically cover alcohol: no public consumption; no driving under the influence; no purchases by those under 21. “These are all illegal actions, and the department will take aggressive action in enforcing the law,” LAPD Assistant Chief Michel Moore told the Los Angeles Daily News.

You can take the LAPD at its word about compliance. But the bigger issues in the early days of legal Cali herb involve matters the police have no control over.

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Recreational marijuana in California is still subject to a web of laws and regulations that are, inexplicably, only now making the pivot required to fully enact Proposition 64, the initiative approved by Californians in November 2016. LA Weekly reported this week that “the state government didn’t start issuing emergency licenses to sell recreational marijuana until mid-December. ... only 30 percent of the state’s cities and counties have rules in place to deal with recreational marijuana.”

“In Los Angeles, the city wasn’t even going to start taking recreational pot dispensary applications until Jan. 3 — three days after the new law went into effect,” LA Weekly reported. “[L]ongtime movers and shakers in the marijuana industry say there won’t be enough legal dispensaries to serve the locals, never mind the expected tourist influx of out-of-state tokers expected to flock to California for a taste of the state’s homegrown ganja.”

L.A. City Councilman Paul Krikorian got it about right for the Los Angeles Times: “It really does feel like we’re building the plane in midair,” he said in early December.

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It didn’t have to be this way. The state government had plenty of time (since November 2016) to conduct the licensing process it’s only recently begun. As it stands now, the legal farrago over who can sell and who can’t will have a follow-on effect, on consumers’ wallets.

Citing data from BDS Analytics, a cannabis-industry analyst, The Mercury News reported in October that “in Oregon, Colorado and Washington, disruptions in supply chain — which could include anything from a backlog in product testing to a change in regulations — resulted in prices increasing 10 to 20 percent for a couple of months. The impact largely depends on how quickly an event can be resolved.”

No doubt knowing what to expect from a state government that often moves at a snail’s pace, southern California herb aficionados have been working around the legislative logjam for months. Medical pot dispensaries have been offering handsome discounts to their regular customers, and at least one East Hollywood dispensary sidestepped the legal requirement of a doctor’s clearance months ago. It started offering herb for sale to customers with a state ID card or driver’s license. No note from the doctor needed.

And other marijuana mainstreaming’s been under way in the run-up to Jan. 1. MedMen, a major medical marijuana supplier in southern California and New York, made a big splash when it launched its breezy, diverse “Faces” ad campaign in the LA Weekly, OC (Orange County) Weekly and other publications months before the Jan. 1 date. The $500,000 ad campaign (one estimate says it cost as much as $750K) also got pride of place on Sunset Boulevard, near the venerated Whisky a Go-Go.

With images of some of the people that make California the demographic mosaic that it is, the ads urges people to “Relax,” “Heal,” “Smile,” “Shop,” “Play,” “Smoke,” and otherwise enjoy what’s coming. The clincher tagline common to all the ads is the only thing that matters: “It’s legal.”

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While legality is now the statutory law of the land, there’s another law of the land that regulations can’t handle — the law that says you can’t grow marijuana without the land to do it.

The state’s 2017 wildfire season, the worst in recorded history, may usher in what for some is an unthinkable prospect: at least in the early going of its recreational-herb experience, agriculturally fertile California forced to import marijuana from outside the state, probably from neighbors Nevada, Oregon and Washington, whose recreational pot programs are up and running.

It’s more than just possible. In 2017, California was hit with a one-two punch that makes herb shortages almost a certainty. In October, northern California suffered a devastating series of wildfires that, among other things, destroyed several marijuana farms in and around Humboldt and Mendocino counties — prime growing land for state pot farmers — just before the harvest.

That month, Hezekiah Allen, executive director of the California Growers Association, told The Mercury News that 32 growers filed reports of “significant to complete” loss of crops from the northern California fires, which killed 46 people and burned about 200,000 acres.

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Then came the second blow, in southern California: The Thomas fire and smaller subsidiary wildfires consumed more than 281,000 acres starting Dec. 4. The fire, fueled by the all-too-reliable Santa Ana winds, has been an equal opportunity destroyer, wiping out homes in Ventura and posh Bel-Air, and briefly shutting down the 405 Freeway. At this writing, the fire is still officially about 92 percent contained. The combined southern California fires have charred the equivalent of land the size of New York City and Boston, combined.

The state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection reported that 1.38 million acres have burned in the 2017 wildfire season. Accu-Weather predicts the fires will cost the state upwards of $180 billion.

You can see the imperfect storm that’s brewing for marijuana advocates: Supply of marijuana is already tightening in some areas; and the various regulatory hurdles are still to be negotiated by the very entrepreneurs California needs to make this work. Add to that the incineration of vast acres of growing land, and the stage is set for a classic low supply-high demand scenario: shortages at dispensaries, higher prices for available product, and the very real possibility of distributors and retailers going to sources outside the state to get what they need.

The wildfires are the uncertain factor here, of course — the wild card. But in early dealings with recreational marijuana, California lawmakers have fumbled the ball, and now play an impossible game of catch-up, like a hapless commuter trying to catch a train after it’s left the station platform ... despite being able to see the train coming for more than a year. The state’s marijuana market may pay the price for that.

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For a while.

But once the bugs in regulation and supply are worked out, California will still be poised to lead the nation in recreational pot sales, dwarfing competitors by way of sheer population size.

According to the Green Market Report, a cannabis industry monitor, California sales revenue is expected to exceed $15 billion a year — more than Colorado, Nevada, Oregon and Washington combined. Others place the revenue higher.

The long-term economic outlook for recreational herb in California is bright. For now, though, expect the state’s leap into the future to be more of a lurch and a stumble, until the smoke clears (the regulatory kind and the wildfire kind).

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Michael Eric Ross

Michael Eric Ross writes from Los Angeles on pop culture, politics, film and other subjects. His writing has also appeared in TheWrap, Medium, PopMatters, The New York Times, Entertainment Weekly,, Salon, and other publications. 

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