The 12 months of cannabis

From CBD beer bans and the High Times Cannabis Cup to faulty lab tests and weed recalls, California’s rookie year for recreational use had its perks, but it was far from flawless

illustration by Maria Ratinova

Year one is in the books. After voters legalized adult-use marijuana in November 2016, California opened legal weed sales on January 1, becoming the country’s sixth recreational-use state.

The rookie year was far from flawless. With legalization came a bong load of new taxes, a mellow-harshing government push-back and a patchwork of ever-evolving regulations that left many people dazed and confused.

“It was a difficult transition into the regulated market, more difficult than I had anticipated,” says Kimberly Cargile, executive director of A Therapeutic Alternative in Midtown Sacramento. As legal weed prepares to enter its second year in California, let’s relive the highlights and lowlights of an eventful year one.

Play ball! (January)

Recreational cannabis sales officially kicked off on January 1, with a handful of shops across the state opening at midnight to celebrate the milestone. However, with a very liberal medical marijuana program already in place in California for more than two decades, most smokers carried on as though nothing had changed, save for a new 15 percent state excise tax that forced many people to reconsider the black market. Cities including Los Angeles and San Francisco were slow to start recreational sales because local regulations were not approved in time, while roughly 70 percent of local governments still don’t permit cannabis businesses. Of course, it only a took a few days for then-U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions to ruin everyone’s fun. On January 4, he rescinded the Obama-era memorandum which created a policy of non-interference with marijuana-friendly states.

Nights of cup (May)

Sacramento hosted its first-ever legal outdoor-use pot event in May when High Times magazine brought the Cannabis Cup concert and vendor showcase to Cal Expo. The event, which included live performances from Lauryn Hill, Lil Wayne, Ludacris and Rick Ross, was saved from cancellation just days before its scheduled start when the City Council voted 6-2 to grant the necessary permit for on-site consumption and sales. A second Cannabis Cup event scheduled for October was postponed indefinitely, however, partially due to unpaid revenues promised to the city by High Times. Another reason for the delay was Assembly Bill 2020, a bill signed in September by Gov. Jerry Brown that allows local jurisdictions to approve temporary cannabis event licenses at any venue, instead of only at fairgrounds like Cal Expo. The bill goes into effect on January 1, 2019.

Netflix and chill (June)

The media mainstreaming of marijuana consumption continued apace this year, as Cooking on High, a Netflix culinary competition co-hosted by SN&R columnist Ngaio Bealum debuted in June. Otherwise, with the outlaw days long gone and fewer authority figures left to rebel against, 2018 was a weak year for stoner-tainment. The long-awaited Super Troopers 2 came out on April 20 to a collective ho-hum, while the formerly fresh Broad City continued its slide into stagnancy. Even a crass commercialist like Chuck Lorre can’t keep a weed-themed show on the air anymore, as Netflix canceled the Kathy Bates-starring Disjointed after two seasons.

Test trick (July)

While legal weed sales started on January 1, new packaging, testing and dosage requirements did not go into effect until July 1. After that deadline, only properly tested products could be sold, and untested products had to be destroyed. As stores scurried to sell off their untested goods, customers enjoyed a fire sale of marked-down merchandise. However, the skimpily stocked shelves at dispensaries in the following weeks highlighted an insufficient testing lab infrastructure—only 31 were licensed before the deadline, and many were not yet open for business. One in five batches failed to meet the new testing standards, and the lab director at Sequoia Analytical Labs in Sacramento was accused in November of falsifying pesticide test results on more than 700 batches of cannabis.

CORE beliefs (August)

After months of negotiations, the Sacramento City Council unanimously approved the creation of the Cannabis Opportunity Reinvestment and Equity program in August. An attempt to even the scales for the people most adversely affected by the war on drugs, CORE waives permit fees and provides advice and assistance to people arrested for nonviolent marijuana crimes who are looking to start a canna-business. Later in the year, Gov. Brown signed AB 1793, which provides for the automatic expungement of certain cannabis-related criminal convictions. African-Americans are almost four times more likely to be arrested for a marijuana-related offense than white people, yet the multibillion-dollar legal weed industry is disproportionately controlled by white men. “You’re seeing in other states where marijuana has been legal that racial disparity in arrest rates continues, and in some ways, it’s gotten worse,” says Mike Vitiello, a McGeorge Law School professor and co-author of an upcoming marijuana law casebook. “We’re not out of that vicious circle yet.”

CBDon’t (October)

Let’s pause for a moment to pour a perfectly legal, nonalcoholic, dispensary-distributed canna-beverage onto the curb in fond remembrance of the short-lived CBD beer and cocktail craze in California. In the heady early months of legalization, brewers and mixologists ran wild with the concept of infusing their alcoholic wares with cannabis, especially the non-psychoactive, anti-inflammatory cannabinoid known as CBD. The inevitable crackdown came first from the federal government, as the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau sent cease-and-desist letters to CBD-beer brewers in May. Next came a state government crackdown, as Gov. Brown signed a bill in October that explicitly prohibited the sale of cannabis cocktails, forcing bartenders at local spots such as R15 to stop selling their popular CBD concoctions.

Ballot hotbox (October)

America’s polite neighbors to the north traded the maple flag for a pot leaf on October 17, becoming the first industrialized country in the world to legalize weed at the national level. The green wave kept cresting on Election Day in America, as Michigan became the first Midwestern state to approve recreational marijuana, while medical marijuana initiatives passed in Utah and Missouri. That put the total number of recreational-use states at 10, while 33 states now allow some form of medical marijuana. More red states may turn green in 2020, as medical marijuana initiatives are currently advancing to the ballot in South Dakota, Mississippi and Nebraska.

Special delivery (December)

Regulators at the California Bureau of Cannabis Control proposed that delivery of cannabis products should be allowed across the state, even in cities such as Rocklin and Milpitas that ban cannabis businesses. This proposal was immediately condemned by law enforcement groups and the League of California Cities. “I think the long-term effect will be to force non-complying communities that don’t want to have marijuana to allow it so that they can get a piece of the action,” Vitiello says. “But that seems contrary to the original understanding about local government entities having some control over marijuana in their own communities.