More than two decades after California became the first U.S. state to legalize medical marijuana use, on January first it becomes the final West Coast state to legalize pot for recreational purposes — a move approved by California voters in November 2016, in a referendum known as Prop 64.
While this is good news for cannabis enthusiasts, those with visions of unencumbered marijuana use in the California sunshine will find that reality is not quite so cut-and-dried — meaning, simple — referring to the processing of tobacco leaves.
Most importantly, while seven U.S. states and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational marijuana use, the U.S. federal government still considers it a controlled substance, classified with heroin and LSD as illegal drugs. Elsewhere, 29 states have legalized medical marijuana, and Maine and Massachusetts are set to legalize recreational pot in 2018.
Federal versus state law
Former White House spokesman Sean Spicer told reporters in February 2017 that the Department of Justice may be looking into legal marijuana use in the future.
"When you see something like the opioid addiction crisis blossoming around so many states... the last thing we should be doing is encouraging people," Spicer said.
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, an opponent of legalized pot, said in November that he is taking a close look at federal enforcement of anti-drug laws that include marijuana. “Good people don’t smoke marijuana," he said at a Senate hearing in 2016.
Federal and state laws come more into play in California, which has several U.S. Border Patrol checkpoints, at which federal agents, mainly searching for illegal immigrants, are also empowered to seize pot stashes and prosecute the owners.
The Associated Press quotes Ronald Vitiello, acting deputy commissioner of the federal Customs and Border Protection agency, as calling drug seizures at border checkpoints an "ancillary effect"of enforcing immigration laws.
In addition to 34 permanent checkpoints along the U.S. border with Mexico, Border Patrol operates more than 100 "tactical" stops that may appear or disappear as needed, as far as 161 kilometers inside the U.S. border.
AP reports that people found with pot at those checkpoints are typically photographed and fingerprinted, and their stashes seized. The report says those people often aren't charged with a crime, however, because pot possession in small amounts is considered a low-priority offense.
The checkpoints are legal. Border Patrol agents say they help catch illegal immigrants who have made it past the U.S. border and might disappear into a large city; and the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that agents can question people at checkpoints even if they have no reason to believe anyone inside the car is in the country illegally.
Bureau of Cannabis Control
Meanwhile, California has created its own Bureau of Cannabis Control to regulate the growing and sale of cannabis.
Bureau spokesman Alex Traverso told the Los Angeles Times that about eight enforcement officers will be in place by January 1.
The bureau has issued fewer than 200 temporary business licenses so far, although cities such as Los Angeles and San Francisco are expected later to issue their own local licenses, which will be required to get a state permit. Only a few dozen retail outlets are expected to be up and running by January 1.
Many localities inside California have not yet approved recreational pot use — and some may choose not to do so at all. Cannabis Control did not start issuing licenses to sell recreational cannabis until mid-December, so many applications are still in the works.
San Diego, San Jose, Oakland, Berkeley and Eureka are among the towns where pot stores can open on January 1.
Still proponents of legalized pot say bringing the drug out into the open makes it possible to tax sales of cannabis — which lawmakers hope will result in $1 billion a year in new tax revenue for the state. The money will come from a 15 percent state excise tax on every cannabis purchase. Local governments can place additional taxes on top of that — or they can ban pot shops entirely, if they choose.
Daniel Yi, a spokesman for the L.A.-area dispensary Med Men, says he expects an eighth of an ounce of pot to go for about $35 when two Med Men shops begin selling to recreational users on January 2. He told Reuters news agency that three other locations will probably not begin selling to recreational users for a few more weeks.
Keeping out of trouble
Further moves to keep control on the industry include guidelines for retailers, and age and use limits for consumers.
Pot sales will be restricted to people who are age 21 or older, but anyone visiting the state who is of age may buy and consume marijuana at legal outlets. Prop 64 specifically prohibits marketing of pot products to minors.
Pot shops cannot be within 180 meters (600 feet) of a school and they must maintain 24-hour surveillance. They also cannot open before 6 a.m. and must close by 10 p.m.
California anti-smoking laws make it illegal to smoke pot in places where regular tobacco smoking is banned. Employers may still subject employees to drug tests to ensure a drug-free workplace.
Drivers are being warned not to drive after using pot. While it is harder to measure a person's intoxication level after smoking pot than it is after alcohol consumption, Hound Labs of Oakland is developing what it says is a "marijuana breathalyzer" for cops and employers to gauge whether a person has been using while driving or on the job.
L.A. County Sheriff Jim McDonnell says he worries about people getting behind the wheel while high.
"The public's perception is that weed is innocuous, that this is something they did 40 years ago and it is no big deal," he told the Los Angeles Times. "Well, today's marijuana is not yesterday's marijuana. The active ingredient, THC, is so much higher today than back 40 years ago."
As for food products containing THC, Californians will be able to consume them in any public place where food is normally consumed. The publishers of Mother Jones magazine say at least one of their readers wrote in to ask if there will be cannabis ice cream — and the answer, they say, is yes. Medical marijuana users have been consuming it for years. But there's a catch: the amount of THC allowable in such items is limited to 10 milligrams per serving.
One other effect of the new pot law is that it will reduce penalties on people who have been convicted for pot crimes in the past. In addition to making pot more available, the law that legalized it, known as Prop 64, also makes pot crimes once viewed as felonies into lower-level misdemeanors. That means some people currently in California jails for selling or possessing pot could see their sentences reduced.