The online ad for Green Light District – a pot shop in a brick office building five miles from Disneyland – was clear: Anyone 21 years and older was welcome to buy weed with only a “valid ID.”
During a visit to the unlicensed Anaheim dispensary Tuesday, a worker behind tinted glass in the lobby did ask to see a doctor’s recommendation for medical marijuana. But when I told him I didn’t have one, he said my drivers license verifying I was over 21 was fine so long as I still signed a form stating “under penalty of perjury” that I was a legitimate medical marijuana patient.
I declined, reminding him I was not in fact a patient. So he declined to let me into the locked shop, where a steady stream of visitors were greeted by dance music and a distinct herbal smell.
Green Light District in Anaheim. Mr Nice Guy in Downtown Los Angeles. Smoking Loud Society in Highland. They’re among the dozens of pot shops throughout California advertising that, since voters legalized recreational marijuana under Proposition 64 two months ago, they’ll now sell cannabis without the doctor’s recommendations that have been required under the state’s medical marijuana law for 20 years.
Many of these shops are billing themselves as being “compliant” or “friendly” with Prop. 64, which made it legal as of Nov. 9 for Californians 21 and older to consume marijuana in private, carry an ounce of weed and grow six pot plants per home.
However, Prop. 64 also makes it clear that businesses can’t start selling recreational cannabis until the state establishes a licensing system, which is expected to take until Jan. 1, 2018.
Of course, some dispensaries sold weed to just about anyone long before Prop. 64 passed. But the legalization law seems to have made these shady players even more brazen. A search on Weedmaps.com turned up many shops that now openly state they’ll sell everything from infused gummy candies to concentrated waxes after verifying only the buyer’s age, not his or her medical status.
“I think that they’ve gotten more emboldened,” said James Wolak, captain of the Narcotics Bureau for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. “People feel like now that it’s legal, anything goes. And that’s just not the case.”
Despite a spike in reports of illegal sales since the legalization measure passed in November, Wolak acknowledged it’s been tough for law enforcement to encourage prosecutions against people who are quick to note the broad protections afforded to medical marijuana providers under California law.
That’s angering above-board marijuana retailers and others in the industry who are paying taxes, licensing fees, security and more to legally sell medical marijuana while they wait for the state to permit legal recreational sales.
“Are we going through this licensing process as a charade?” asked Aaron Herzberg, who hopes to one day expand the clientele at two licensed medical dispensaries owned by his company, Calcann Holdings, in Santa Ana.
“They are making a mockery of the entire effort the state is going through to try to legalize cannabis,” he said. “We’ve got to make it possible for licensed businesses to have a fighting chance or the whole thing’s going to fail.”
Ever since Californians approved the first, largest and most relaxed medical marijuana program in the nation two decades ago, people looking to make money in the industry have grown accustomed to testing the waters.
Because cannabis remains illegal at the federal level, these entrepreneurs always face raids that can crush their business or land them in prison. But protections for “collectives” in California’s medical marijuana law mean cities are often stuck taking unlicensed pot retailers to civil court to shut them down – if they can even tell who’s actually running them. Often, by the time that process has played out, savvy owners have moved on, opening in a different location or under a new name so the city is forced to start all over again.
Wolak said it’s a bit like playing a game of whack-a-mole, with new shops popping up every time authorities manage to shut one down.
“Dispensaries have always been operating in a legal gray area, so they are probably comfortable taking a risk,” said David Pullman, a Bay Area criminal defense attorney who specializes in representing people accused of drug crimes. “Stoners sure do love to push the envelope, though.”
Owners of Cannaclub 30 dispensary in Compton didn’t respond to phone calls or emails to discuss their policy. But a handwritten sign on the shop’s door features pictures of dancing cannabis flowers and the news that only shoppers 18 to 20 years old need a valid doctor’s recommendation.
Worker Justin Perez acknowledged that his shop, Elevated Dreams Collective in Santa Ana, is trying to tap into the “new buzz” from Prop. 64 that says anyone 21 and over is allowed to smoke. But he said the rules for shops are “hard to explain.”
He initially said anyone 21 and over could come into the unlicensed 17th Street shop, but only if they were with someone who had a doctor’s recommendation. Moments later, he added that if a potential customer arrives without a referral, they send them to a doctor they work with who helps patients.
When reminded that his shop’s Weedmaps ad stated at the time that a recommendation wasn’t needed for anyone 21 and older, he said, “Does it? Maybe Weedmaps changed that. We’ll have to look into that.”
A spokesman for Weedmaps confirmed that only dispensaries can update their pages.
A woman who identified herself as a volunteer for Dankology 35 Cap in San Bernardino blamed confusion over her shop’s policy on a Weedmaps page that needed updates.
Though the dispensary’s online ad said, “Dank is now Prop 64 friendly! 21+ just ID required,” the volunteer insisted everyone needs a valid doctor’s recommendation to shop at the San Bernardino spot before quickly hanging up the phone.
Enforcement in limbo
Legal operators, among others, wonder if police will go after the illegal sellers.
While operating an unlicensed medical marijuana dispensary has been a civil issue, selling cannabis to people who don’t have a doctor’s recommendations is a criminal act – albeit a less risky one than it was two months ago.
Prop. 64 reduced penalties for just about every marijuana-related crime, including downgrading selling cannabis without a license from a felony, which carried up to a four-year prison sentence, to a misdemeanor, with a possible maximum sentence of six months in jail, a $500 fine or both.
Sgt. Daron Wyatt with the Anaheim Police Department said they sent undercover officers into a local shop on two recent occasions to see if workers would sell cannabis without a recommendation, but both times the shop passed the test.
Since even medical marijuana dispensaries aren’t allowed in Anaheim, Wyatt said police are still working to shut that shop down, though he declined to name the store due to the ongoing investigation.
Shops caught breaking the law could disqualify themselves from actually getting a permit when they do become available, Pullman pointed out. But there’s also a paragraph in the legalization measure that ensures entrepreneurs in the recreational market can’t be turned down for business licenses simply because they have even felony convictions for controlled substances.
“I doubt many law enforcement agencies would care to risk the bad PR and bust these dispensaries over what will soon be legal,” Pullman predicted. “Then again, consider a liquor store or bar selling alcohol without a permit.”
Wolak said they do plan to run operations where they send minors in to try to buy cannabis and catch bad players, the way they do at liquor stores and bars. But he said those compliance checks will likely pick up once shops are licensed and all regulations are in place.
If the state hopes to get any sort of handle on the industry before recreational sales are rolled out next year, Herzberg said he thinks they need to be drawing a line in the sand now.
California’s 20-year-old medical marijuana market is already so massive that Herzberg said the scenario isn’t the same as what Colorado, Washington and other states that previously legalized recreational cannabis have faced.
“The problem is that we have a multibillion-dollar criminal enterprises here,” he said.
“Sophisticated” entrepreneurs own multiple shops throughout the state and grow their own supply in defiance of local bans, Herzberg said. Many, he added, even have a designated “fall guy” who will take the rap if authorities do crack down so that the business can still continue.
Though cannabis remains illegal at the federal level, the Obama Administration has said it would let states carry out their own legalization schemes so long as they enforce regulations aimed at preventing sales to minors, money laundering and other criminal offenses.
But that all could change after Jan. 20, when President-Elect Donald Trump takes office and aims to bring Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions – who has been a staunch marijuana opponent – along with him.
“With the new Trump Administration coming in with Jeff Sessions, my feeling is that marijuana is going to be under greater scrutiny,” Herzberg said. “California is not in compliance and is absolutely at risk of being raided.”
The state’s new Bureau of Medical Cannabis Regulation is well aware that eliminating unlicensed retailers is one of biggest challenges they face over the coming years, spokeswoman Veronica Harms.
Once a licensing structure is in place, she said her agency will work with local authorities to enforce cannabis laws. But until then, Harms noted the state doesn’t have jurisdiction over rogue shops, with that responsibility still squarely on local law enforcement.
As for adults who buy weed from these unscrupulous shops, Pullman said they have very little to worry about.
“Buying marijuana was never illegal and possession of up to an ounce is now totally legal for those over 21,” he said.
But if customers who don’t have doctor’s recommendations for marijuana sign forms – like the one I was handed at Green Light District in Anaheim – swearing that they do, Pullman said they could face prosecution for fraud and perjury.
“They would have to prove that you knew somehow that there was a legal connotation to what you were signing and most people can just play dumb about that,” Pullman said.
The words “under penalty of perjury” are a bit of a giveaway, he noted, giving more zealous prosecutors something to work with.
Still, he said, “I think it would be very difficult to prosecute and very unlikely that they would go after the buyer.”
For those who aren’t willing to take that gamble, the only ways to legally get cannabis in California now without a doctor’s recommendation are to either wait until their homegrown supply is ready or to be given an ounce (or less) from another adult.