Your Guide to California’s New Recreational Marijuana Rules

Welcome to the brave new world of weed

In California, New Year’s Day 2018 will ring in more than just a hangover and a handful of half-baked resolutions. It will bring sweeping change as the state’s much-anticipated Medicinal and Adult-Use Cannabis Regulation and Safety Act fully comes into effect. Passed by voters in November 2016, Proposition 64 legalized recreational cannabis for people 21 and older. The initiative allowed for possessing, transporting, and sharing up to an ounce of cannabis and eight grams of cannabis concentrate, as well as growing as many as six plants at home.

But unlike other states that have legalized weed, California has more than 20 years of experience dealing with legalized medical marijuana, which has actually complicated the process of nailing down some of the specifics regarding recreational use. So the state gave itself until the start of 2018 to sort things out. The City of L.A. and L.A. County have been scrambling along with legislators to establish regulations for businesses that cultivate, manufacture, distribute, and sell weed and related products.

Some rules that go into effect on January 1 are likely to change, but for now, here’s what you need to know.

Seller’s Market

While you’ve able to light up legally since November 2016 (not just anywhere, though; for more on that, keep reading), you haven’t been able to saunter into a shop and buy the stuff over the counter for expressly recreational (officially called “adult-use”) purposes. To sell pot and its products legally, retailers need to have a license issued by the state’s Bureau of Cannabis Control (formerly known as the Bureau of Medical Cannabis Regulation) as well as permission from local authorities to operate. Alex Traverso, the bureau’s chief of communications, says his department “won’t know until the time comes” how many applicants there’ll be by New Year’s Day (although a 2016 California Department of Food and Agriculture survey found 2,718 companies interested in seeking licenses in L.A. County). The state is also prepping temporary licenses, good for four months, to go to existing dispensaries that can prove they’re in compliance with local regulations. In the city of Los Angeles, applications from existing medical marijuana dispensaries will get priority, provided they’re submitted within 60 days of when licenses become available (the city hasn’t yet determined when it will start issuing them). And, under proposed guidelines released in September, cannabis delivery will be available.

Corner Shop

As for what types of stores you can expect to see, Josh Drayton, the communications and outreach director of the California Cannabis Industry Association, says to think more boutique and less neon-and-bong head shop. “The consumer has changed,” he notes, “and modern brick-and-mortar dispensaries are turning into well-organized showrooms and lounges. My marker has always been, ‘Would I bring my mother into this space?’ ”

The WeHo branch of the medical marijuana dispensary MedMen, which expects to sell recreational weed as well

Photograph by Shayan Asgharnia

Adult Use Vs. Medical

In June 2017, Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill making regulations the same for recreational and medical marijuana. But distinctions between the two will remain. Beginning with cultivation, cannabis will be slapped with either an A for adult-use or an M for medical use, and all businesses involved in the cannabis industry will receive an A license or an M license; retailers have the option of being dual licensees. People with a medical card should hang onto it because medical marijuana will still be available to patients 18 and older. Plus, says Jolene Forman, a staff attorney for the Drug Policy Alliance , some strains and some shops will continue to cater specifically to patients’ needs. “That will ultimately be really good for medical patients because it preserves strains that are meant to alleviate symptoms,” she notes. “For instance, for the most part you’re probably not going to see a lot of topical remedies in the A category, but topical remedies for muscle spasms or chronic pain are common.”


Whether your purchases are to ease pain or boost pleasure, they’re likely to be in cash for the near term: Since the federal government deems pot illegal, banks have been loath to provide cannabis-related operations credit. Recreational users in L.A. will pay a 15 percent state excise tax as well as a 9.5 percent county sales tax. Some areas will charge an additional business tax, and there are taxes associated with growing, distributing, and selling, too. (Patients with a valid medical card will be exempt from sales tax. ) Economists estimate that those fees could bring $1 billion in revenue to the state, and according to City Controller Ron Galperin, L.A. could bring in at least $50 million in tax revenue next year.

After the government takes a piece of that cash to cover its costs, the money will be spread around, including:

  • $2 million to the UC San Diego Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research
  • $3 million a year for five years to the California Highway Patrol to establish DUI protocols
  • $10 million every year until 2028 to a California public university for legalization-related research
  • $10 million in 2018 to areas disproportionately affected by criminalization. The figure will grow by $10 million a year and remain at $50 million in 2022 and beyond

Of any remaining funds, 60 percent will go toward drug education, treatment, and prevention for youth; 20 percent will be distributed to state and local law enforcement; and 20 percent will be put toward cleaning up environmental damage caused by pre-regulation grow operations.

Fair Market

Cat Packer, the first executive director of L.A.’s Department of Cannabis Regulation (aka, the city’s pot czar) has emphasized her interest in leveling the playing field for neighborhoods that have been heavily impacted by marijuana prohibition, namely low-income communities of color. She and others have advocated giving everyone a fair shake to profit from Proposition 64. Barriers to entering the market include prior convictions and potentially high price points, from licensing applications to real estate, says Denver-based Emmett Reistroffer, a cannabis policy consultant. “We’re looking at training programs to get people educated,” he says, “and also to provide consultants, legal services, accounting, and things like that at a lower cost, to expedite those applications.”

Photograph by Shayan Asgharnia


Some police departments where pot has been legalized have cited a drop in forfeitures of property seized from people suspected of illegal drug activity, which are a source of revenue for those departments. On the flip side, research has suggested that there’s big money to be saved by not having to enforce pot laws, and money will certainly be saved among users who will be spared legal fees they might have faced in the past.

Public Consumption 

Just like you can’t drink booze in parks or other unsanctioned public places, you can’t get high in them either. Nor will you find any Amsterdam-like pot bars here for the time being. But some entrepreneurs have already started to push the envelope: Operations like the Alchemy Lounge in downtown L.A. market themselves as private clubs. Alchemy asks that “members” fill out an application and pay a fee at the door, thereby circumventing the “no smoking in public” rule. But such clubs are walking a fine line. “They are either illegal, or they are in this really gray bubble,” says Joseph Nicchitta, the coordinator for L.A. County’s Office of Cannabis Management.

Fines and Penalties

As of November 9, 2016, the fine for driving with an open cannabis “container” (what defines a container is anybody’s guess) is up to $250. In September 2017, Governor Brown took it a step further by signing a bill that specifies a $70 fine for smoking or consuming marijuana while driving. And those people you see vaping on the sidewalk? They are indeed breaking the law. Smoking in public carries a $100 fine that jumps to $250 for smoking in places where tobacco is banned (think: restaurants and offices, in front of certain buildings). Selling weed without a license or having more than the allowable amount of cannabis carries a penalty of $500, six months in jail, or both. Finally anyone caught selling to a minor faces three to seven years.

Photo by Esteban Lopez on Unsplash


Arrests have been going up around the country for people accused of driving while high, but, of course, finding a way to definitively measure intoxication levels has been elusive. According to a report released by the Drug Policy Alliance in 2016, marijuana-related arrests went down in Colorado by 46 percent between 2012 (the year the state legalized recreational use) and 2014. In Washington, D.C., which legalized pot in 2014, such arrests went down  the following year by 85 percent. But the same DPA report found that African Americans were arrested for marijuana-related offenses at double the rate of other races and ethnicities in both Colorado and Washington state after legalization, even though race and ethnicity aren’t indicators of how likely a person is to misuse cannabis. “Disparities unfortunately still persist,” says DPA attorney Forman, “because legalizing marijuana doesn’t correct problems of police bias.”

Red Eyes, Red Tape

The County Board of Supervisors asked the district attorney to close down any illegal dispensaries or weed-related businesses before 2018, “so we have a clean slate for the new licensed industry,” says county coordinator Nicchitta. As for whether the Department of Justice will crack down on the state (U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is staunchly in line with the federal government’s classification of marijuana as an illegal Schedule I drug, alongside heroin, peyote, and ecstasy), no one knows, says the California Bureau of Cannabis Control’s Traverso. “We haven’t seen any sort of concrete plan from the federal government about how they want to handle cannabis regulations,” he adds. “Until they come forward with something specific, we’ve had to block out that noise and focus on getting our work done.”

The Kids Are All Right

When it comes to marijuana consumption among minors, legalization has had little negative effect in other states. In Colorado, which legalized cannabis in 2012, the rate of use among high schoolers dropped from 25 percent in 2009 to 21.2 percent in 2015, according to the 2015 Healthy Kids Colorado Survey. In Washington state, which legalized it in 2012, too, consumption by sixth and eighth graders also decreased, while use among twelfth graders remained even, according to the 2016 Washington Healthy Youth Survey. Nonetheless, in California dispensaries can’t operate within 600 feet of schools; some jurisdictions also forbid them within from being within 1,000 feet of parks, day-care centers, and other “sensitive areas.” In the city of Los Angeles, proposed regulations would create an 800-foot buffer zone between schools, parks, libraries, and facilities for drug and alcohol rehab.

RELATED: Taking a Look at the Landmarks Los Angeles Lost in 2017

Stay on top of the latest in L.A. food and culture. Sign up for our newsletters today.