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California’s cannabis businesses prepare for ‘Repeal Day’

California’s long, violent and expensive war on marijuana will end Monday in a quintessentially American way: joyful shopping.

In scenes resembling a Lululemon sale more than “Reefer Madness,” the state will mark the historic finale of pot’s prohibition on New Year’s Day with long lines for sleek pre-rolled cigarettes, infused pastilles and silver vaporizers that would look right at home in a Prada purse or the pocket of a Patagonia jacket.

Battling for consumer attention, competitive cannabis retailers are opening their Bay Area doors at dawn, promising free coffee, doughnuts, T-shirts and gift bags. There will be DJs and brass bands, food trucks and massages, discount coupons and raffle tickets, limited-edition merchandise and in-store specials.

Customers will be roped off into winding lines resembling airport security. Behind glass counters, goods will appeal to a design-savvy demographic that favors subtlety and an artisanal sensibility over neon lights and bongs. They’ll order “cannabis” — not “pot” — to get “lifted,” not “stoned.”  Smartphones will shoot up in the air for selfies.

“It will be a really fun day!” Brandi Moody, marketing manager of the Caliva dispensary in San Jose, said Thursday as the staff busily stocked shelves.

In anticipation, the store has doubled the size of its retail staff, diversified its inventory and added new stanchions for crowd control.

As the result of the passage of Proposition 64 in November 2016, beginning Monday it will be legal in California to buy, sell, smoke and carry marijuana, as long as you’re at least 21 and you don’t drive while high. No doctor’s note is necessary. But go home to consume the stuff. It’s not allowed at the stores, in their parking lots or any other public space.

Yes, a counterculture community that has long prided itself on radical individualism is suddenly going mainstream.

Gone are fears of police raids, arrests, jail time and shattered lives. State helicopters aren’t hovering over the Emerald Triangle. Camouflaged SWAT teams aren’t hiding in forests, pointing guns. Thugs and drug cartels like the Mexican Mafia will likely lose their deadly grip.

The plant will no longer be regulated by police — as if it were cocaine — but instead by state bureaucrats and tax collectors, as if it were whiskey. As of Friday, licenses have been issued for cultivation, manufacture, distribution or sale in Santa Clara, Alameda, Contra Costa, Sonoma and Santa Cruz counties.

For the Bay Area’s cannabis community, this new utopia means reckoning with capitalism never imagined in Haight-Ashbury’s “turn on, tune in, drop out”  ethos of the late ’60s.

Kristen Quitoriano, a budtender at Caliva cannabis dispensary, prepares Thursday, Dec. 28, 2017, for the coming New Year’s Day start of recreational marijuana sales in San Jose, Calif. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)

Marijuana businesses have hired “compliance teams” and marketers, accountants and publicists. There are pages of mind-numbing regulations to read. To upgrade its computer network and coordinate with the state’s new “track-and-trace” program, Caliva recently brought in a new chief technology officer and a team of software and hardware experts.

Oakland’s Harborside dispensary is expanding its retail space and has added a remodeled reception foyer, custom cabinetry and a special counter for online order pickup.

To keep up with orders, the father-son team behind Santa Cruz’s Big Pete’s Treats — cannabis-infused chocolate chip, peanut butter, cinnamon sugar and lemon cookies — recently invested in a 60-quart dough mixer and a “cookie depositor” machine that’s much faster than hand scooping.

“We have geared up production, as the industry races to get orders in,” said son Pete Feurtado Jr., 30, a surfer and graduate of Oklahoma City’s Mid-America Christian University.  “We’re at maximum capacity.”

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Stores are expanding their offerings to please a different consumer, adding more low-dose edibles and “wellness products” such as topicals and “pre-rolls,” which don’t require pesky paraphernalia or rolling skills.

Prices are climbing because of taxes. Expect to pay anywhere from $9 for a generic joint to $250 (plus $20 for custom engraving) for a Bluetooth-enabled Pax 3 vaporizer, which connects to a smartphone app so you can customize its LED colors, adjust the temperature, dim the lights and lock it up.

Monday won’t feel like “Repeal Night” on Dec. 5, 1933, when the 21st Amendment was ratified, liquor flowed and crowds gathered to sing “Happy Days Are Here Again.” That’s because the ban on marijuana did not begin as neatly as the ban on alcohol — and isn’t ending as cleanly, industry experts say.

Cannabis was criminalized in California in the early 1900s under the Poison and Pharmacy Act, with simple possession punishable by up to six years in prison. But pot laws in California and most other states have gradually become less strict in recent decades. In 1996, California voters passed Proposition 215, which created the state’s medical cannabis program. Illicit marijuana has been readily available in the Golden State — and may continue to be if growers and distributors decide they can’t afford to comply with the law and continue to operate illegally.

Transfer agent Elyse Jones waters the marijuana clones at the Harborside Health Center medical marijuana dispensary in San Jose. (LiPo Ching/Bay Area News Group)

Legal weed won’t be everywhere. There will be shops in cities such as San Jose, Oakland and Berkeley. One 25-mile swath of the left-leaning East Bay — from Hayward to El Cerrito — will allow sales. The artsy agricultural coast, from Pacifica to Santa Cruz, is also pot-friendly.

But in other parts of the state, such as the rural counties of Fresno, Modoc, Glenn and Tulare, nothing’s changed. Local leaders have made themselves clear: not now, not ever.

Some Californians are worried that the grand experiment will fail — and be virtually impossible to undo. Rural areas fear more car crashes and don’t trust the state to cover the high cost of law enforcement and regulation, said Paul Smith of Rural County Representatives of California, which represents 35 counties.

“It’s very complex,” he said. “Who will monitor the amount of acreage on a plot? The amount of energy used? Did they pay taxes in this manner or that manner? Did they grow on Maple Street and not Elm Avenue? Did they turn off their grow lights at 10 p.m. or leave them on all night? That’s where the rubber hits the road.”

Marijuana remains illegal under federal law, although the feds have largely respected states’ autonomy. While it’s not a complete cease-fire in the feds’ war on drugs, it’s beginning to look more like a negotiated surrender.

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California’s newly legal industry is expected to generate $4 billion in revenue and $1 billion in taxes annually. An estimated 1,200 jobs could be created.

The environment will be better protected, as authorities crack down on pesticide use, the clearing of forests and native vegetation and dumping of trash. Workers will have more protection from on-the-job injuries.

And lives are getting a second act. Since Californians passed Proposition 64, Bay Area residents have filed more than 800 cases to clear their names, petitioning for re-sentencing, reduction in charges or expungement of marijuana-related felonies, according to data compiled by the Judicial Council of California.

“My first time in handcuffs was at the age of 11 — for growing a plant in a pine tree in a backyard in Fremont,” said grower, manufacturer, distributor and marketer Patrick King of Soil King Productions in Cloverdale. “I’ve spent many years behind bars because of this plant.

In this Sept. 29, 2017 photo, a sheriff’s deputy guards three men arrested for allegedly cultivating marijuana in unincorporated Calaveras County, Calif. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

“The worst part — the greatest sacrifice — was being ashamed,” said King, who has served on the board of the local Boys and Girls Club, coached Little League and volunteered for the Lions Club. “Always thinking that people thought of me as bad, even though I knew that wasn’t true in my heart. I carried that through life.”

His felonies now expunged, King is awaiting licensing and will be honored this week by Cloverdale’s City Council for his donations after recent fires. “It’s the greatest gift. For once, our family feels it can be proud,” he said.

“The minute you put it in your mouth, you crossed the line. You became one of ‘them,'” said Tommy Chong, 79, of Cheech and Chong fame, sentenced to nine months in jail in 2003 after agents raided his glass pipe business. “You got stopped, you got hassled, you got thrown in jail, you got stopped at the border. People who weren’t there, they’ll never know what we went through. And thank God for that.

“I always wondered: ‘What if we are right? What if what we are doing is the right thing to do?'” said Chong, who’s now mass producing his own brand of marijuana products, called Chong’s Choice. “We were right. We won.”

But legalization — into a tightly regulated, hyper-consumer and profit-driven market — may not look like the dreams of ’60s stoners.  It smells more like big business. Some people are going to get rich. Other people, including many old-time growers, could be left behind.

One thing is clear: On New Year’s morning, California will be waking up to a new world.

Years ago, when Big Pete’s Treats’ called its medical marijuana clients, “we were afraid the police were listening,” Feurtado said. “We’re not anymore.”


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