Politics

Here's what January 1 means for marijuana in California

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It was a big deal in the world of marijuana when California voters passed Proposition 64 in Nov. 2016. On Jan. 1, the state's recreational pot market comes online.

Here's an overview of what you need to know about weed in California, for Jan. 1 and beyond.

What are the highlights of the new law?

What are the big changes happening after Jan. 1?

That's when the state is expected to start handing out operating licenses to shops throughout the state, but those shops will have to have gotten approval from their local governments prior to opening. If they have both, and products from licensed vendors, they should be good to go.

When and where will I be able to buy recreational pot?

Since the state's handing out licenses on Jan. 1, retail outlets could theoretically open on New Year's Day. But they won't be in every city in Southern California; a lot of local governments are behind on issuing licensing regulations, and a number of others have decided not to allow pot businesses. (The L.A. City Council is set to approve marijuana regulations on Wednesday.)

For people with no retail stores in their town, they can buy their pot in another city or order home delivery.

In towns that allow recreational sales, shops can't operate within 750 feet of schools, parks, daycare centers and other sensitive locations. They can only be open between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., they can only sell limited amounts to customers, and when they do they have to place the product in opaque packages.

How will the legal recreational market affect the price of marijuana?

California customers could see as much as a 70 percent jump in prices compared with what they currently pay in medical marijuana shops. A state tax of 15 percent on all marijuana products goes into effect Jan. 1 and additional local taxes will follow.

There could also be an issue of demand exceeding supply. Colorado and Washington initially struggled to meet demand, as it took a while to bring enough shops online and to keep the open ones fully stocked. That drove up prices. As supplies became more reliable and additional shops opened, prices declined. 

Are the authorities prepared to crack down on black market pot operations?

In Los Angeles, there has been a proliferation of unlicensed medical marijuana shops, and law enforcement has struggled to put them out of business. When the LAPD has managed to shut down a shop, sometimes the owners just pick up and move to another location, creating a whack-a-mole situation.

The LAPD and the L.A. Department of Cannabis Regulations say that they're working with the L.A. City Attorney's office to develop a plan to move against illicit shops. One thing that might help with enforcement: Proposition M made it possible for the city to shut off water and power to illegal operations. 

The state's Bureau of Cannabis Control says it has its own enforcement task force.

What are the penalties for breaking marijuana-related laws?

Operations that run afoul of the law can get fined and even lose their licenses.

Someone arrested for breaking the law will likely see a $500 fine or be charged with a misdemeanor. For those who have also sold to a minor, been convicted of a violent felony or are sex offenders, the charges and penalties would increase in severity.

Is the federal government going to look the other way?

The drug is illegal under federal law, and is listed as a Schedule I substance, putting it on a par with heroin in Washington's eyes. Attorney General Jeff Sessions hates pot. He once said, "Good people don't smoke marijuana." On Nov. 29, 2017, Sessions said during a news conference that the Department of Justice is looking "very hard right now" at a directive carried over from the Obama administration that essentially urges federal prosecutors to defer to state laws that legalize pot.

Still, it's not clear that a federal crackdown is imminent. "We'll be working our way through to a rational policy," Sessions said, while noting that "our priorities will have to be focused on all the things and challenges we face."

An earlier version of this story had an incorrect distance for how far dispensaries must be from schools, daycare centers and parks. KPCC regrets the error.