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Anticipation high in California

Profile image for Brian Melley
Brian Melley, Associated Press

Legal weed sales rolling out today

LOS ANGELES -- Californians may awake on New Year's Day to a stronger-than-normal whiff of marijuana as America's cannabis king lights up to celebrate the state's first legal retail pot sales.

The historic day comes more than two decades after California paved the way for legal weed by passing the nation's first medical marijuana law, though other states were quicker to allow the drug's recreational use.

From the small town of Shasta Lake just south of Oregon to San Diego on the Mexican border, the first of about 90 shops licensed by the state will open Monday to customers who previously needed a medical reason or a dope dealer to score pot.

In November 2016, California voters legalized recreational marijuana for adults 21 and older, making it legal to grow six plants and possess an ounce of pot. The state was given a year to set retail market regulations that are still being formalized and will be phased in over the next year.

"We're thrilled," said Khalil Moutawakkil, founder of KindPeoples, which grows, manufactures and sells weed in Santa Cruz. "We can talk about the good, the bad and the ugly of the specific regulations, but at the end of the day it's a giant step forward, and we'll have to work out the kinks as we go."

The long, strange trip to get here has been a frustrating one for advocates of a drug that in the federal government's eyes remains illegal and in a class with heroin.

The state banned "loco-weed" in 1913, according to a history by the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, the pot advocacy group known as NORML. The first attempt to undo that by voter initiative in 1972 failed, but three years later felony possession of less than an ounce was downgraded to a misdemeanor.

In 1996, over objections of law enforcement, the drug czar under President Bill Clinton and three former presidents who warned it was an enormous threat to the public health of "all Americans," California voters approved marijuana for medicinal purposes.

"The heavens didn't fall," said Dale Gieringer, director of California NORML. "We didn't see increased youth drug abuse or increased accidents or crazy things happening as our opponents predicted."

Today, 28 other states have adopted similar laws. In 2012, Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize recreational marijuana. California is one of five states, plus Washington, D.C., that followed suit. Retail sales are scheduled to begin in Massachusetts in July.

The next year is expected to be a bumpy one as more shops open and more stringent regulations take effect.

Alex Traverso, a spokesman for the state's Bureau of Cannabis Control, said Sunday that the agency has been working throughout the weekend to process as many licenses as possible. The agency so far has issued more than 300 licenses statewide for marijuana distributors, retailers and cultivators, he said.

The California Police Chiefs Association, which opposed the ballot measure, remains concerned.

"There's going to be a public health cost and a public safety cost enforcing these new laws and regulations," said Jonathan Feldman, a legislative advocate for the chiefs.