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California rings in new year with legal recreational cannabis

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A jar of cannabis sits on the counter inside The Apothecarium on Lombard Street in San Francisco. (Mira Laing/Special to S.F. Examiner)

SACRAMENTO – Will Senn has been waiting his whole life for this. Californians can now go to the store and buy marijuana, and his shop opened New Year’s Day.

Senn’s Urbn Leaf in San Diego was among the first to get a state-issued license to sell marijuana for medical and recreational uses. He hired 15 more workers to accommodate what he expects to be a crush of new customers to flood into his shop, which had previously specialized in cannabis for medicinal purposes.

“This is what a lot of activists in the industry have been working for since the 1990s when Dennis Peron opened his first marijuana shop for AIDS patients in San Francisco,” Senn said. “It’s a monumental moment and we are ecstatic to be a part of it.”

Still, Californians shouldn’t expect marijuana shops on every corner. In recent weeks, hundreds of businesses have applied for temporary licenses to engage in the marijuana business, but industry officials expect a slow rollout as most cities in California have not yet given their approval, a prerequisite to getting a state license. As of Friday, 49 retail licenses had been issued by the state for businesses to sell recreational marijuana.

Sales for recreational use are allowed in cities including Los Angeles, West Hollywood, San Francisco, San Diego, Oakland, Santa Cruz and San Jose, but many proposed marijuana shops in those cities do not yet have state licenses.

At least 300 other cities, including Riverside, Fresno, Bakersfield, Pasadena and Anaheim, don’t allow marijuana sales for non-medical purposes, according to industry officials.

Voters paved the way for Monday in November 2016, with Proposition 64 winning 57 percent approval. The ballot measure made California one of eight states to approve the sale of cannabis for recreational use. Those 21 and older can purchase and possess up to an ounce of marijuana for recreational use and to grow up to six plants in their homes.

There are still restrictions on when the drug can be used. State regulations prohibit smoking marijuana in many public places, including restaurants and theaters, where cigarettes are barred. And new laws prohibit smoking marijuana while driving.

Prop. 64 gave California officials more than a year to create a regulatory framework for regulating the cultivation, transport, testing and retail sale of cannabis for recreational use. The system that launched Monday is drawing criticism from the industry for its heavy taxes and perceived advantages granted to large corporate farms. It also provides the first state licenses for medical use. Local governments have previously regulated medical dispensaries that were authorized by Proposition 215 in 1996.

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