Californians voted overwhelmingly to legalize adult-use cannabis last month, but with the celebratory joints now smoked down to roaches, plenty of Golden State residents are asking whether they can finally dispense with the rigmarole of getting a doctor’s recommendation to buy bud.
Technically, the answer is no. But that hasn’t stopped some medical dispensaries from advertising online that they’re willing to overlook that formality and sell to anyone over 21 with a California ID. And why not relax the standards now? Las Vegas prosecutors pledged to stop filing charges after that state legalized — why shouldn’t California do the same?
I wanted to know if dispensaries in Los Angeles, the state’s largest medical cannabis market, still gave a damn about the doctor’s note. I didn’t think they would, especially given that some were boasting online things like “Prop 64 friendly,” “21+ just ID required” and “21+ may now enter with valid ID.” So I dropped in with just some cash and my driver’s license to see what would happen.
Logging some serious freeway time, I hit up dispensaries in Downtown Los Angeles, Pasadena, West Hollywood, Malibu, and Marina Del Rey — six shops in all. At each one, I produced my California ID. And at each one, the folks behind the bulletproof glass or outside the store asked for my doctor’s recommendation, too.
Not even a sob story about how I lost the stupid piece of paper or a plea of “But what about the election?” got me through the door. Time and again, they unceremoniously turned me away. (Some did, however, slide me the business card of a nearby medical clinic where I could obtain a medical recommendation.)
“That ain’t gonna get you in,” said one burly dude seated outside a dispensary in West Hollywood.
“Unfortunately the law doesn’t take effect right away,” said a red-eyed woman at a Pasadena shop.
“There’s just no way. You’ve got to have that rec,” said a guy at a store downtown, unimpressed with my tale of misplacing it.
Hours later, I had been completely shut down. This was not what I expected.
In the week leading up to my adventure, no fewer than eight shops had been identified in news reports as advertising that they’d serve anyone over 21 with a valid ID. Mr. Nice Guy, a Downtown LA dispensary, advertised online that “21 years and older may enter with no doctors recommendation,” according to the website LAist, “however those 21 and under are still required to have a rec.”
An employee even confirmed to the LAist that the dispensary was selling sans rec, adding “We don’t really know how it’s going to work either.”
But by the time I visited, on Dec. 3, the shop had apparently changed its tune. Now Mr. Nice Guy’s online blurb stresses the need for a doctor’s recommendation. The dispensary told the LA Weekly that “somebody else” changed the description.
My route across LA included dispensaries within the city itself as well as in nearby cities and unincorporated areas of Los Angeles County. My sample size of dispensaries was admittedly small — estimates put the number of LA-area dispensaries at 700 or more. But does getting turned down everywhere I went mean that shops have shut down ID-only sales?
Maybe. But not everywhere.
Los Angeles-area law enforcement has taken notice of the reported illegal sales — in part because they saw them coming. An internal memo sent to all staff at the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office following last month’s election said prosecutors were expecting many dispensaries would begin selling “non-medical marijuana, believing that their conduct is immunized.”
And that belief is wrong. According to the memo, “it is impossible for any non-medical marijuana business to be in compliance with the law.”
The pushback from authorities, combined with the flurry of news reports drawing attention to the illegal activity, seems to have quelled most dispensaries’ plans to sell to non-medical customers — at least around LA. But word doesn’t always travel fast.
Reached by phone, TCH The Corner House, a dispensary outside of Los Angeles County, in San Bernardino, confirmed that, as it has advertised online, customers over 21 need only a California ID to buy cannabis. The shop declined to answer any of my other questions, though, and eventually hung up.
David Welch, a Los Angeles attorney who represents clients in the medical cannabis industry, confirmed that selling to nonmedical consumers is indeed a violation of the California Health and Safety Code. But since Prop. 64’s passage, he said, the sales don’t flout the law in the same way they once did.
“The risk factor is that those crimes are now misdemeanors,” Welch said. “Violating the law, you have the same potential punishment as operating without a city permit or license. You tend to find the people who were operating illegally before are taking it to the next level.”
The memo to LA County prosecutors suggests various means of going after violators. But because Prop. 64 lessened a huge range of penalties, lots of offenses that were once felonies are now misdemeanors. By turn, many misdemeanors are now infractions.
Is it worth law enforcement time and resources to prosecute cannabis crimes? City Attorney Mike Feuer says it is. “The City Attorney will take action against persons making illegal sales if we get cases from LAPD, as the violation falls within the City Attorney’s jurisdiction, unless there are aggravating factors,” his office told me. (The DA office, aside from providing me a copy of its internal memo, didn’t respond to my other inquiries. And besides, that office generally focuses on felonies.)
Whether the city’s promised enforcement will happen — or work — is anyone’s guess. Despite issuing strong statements against illegal cannabis sales, the office has for years failed to shut down the the hundreds of unlawful dispensaries and delivery services operating across Los Angeles.
If there’s any place where pot businesses are likely to test the waters, it’s LA. Though I went home emptyhanded, the city has a long history of struggling to keep the cannabis industry in check. Hundreds of dispensaries — including some I visited — still operate without the city’s blessing, and delivery services are still dropping off orders despite the city attorney’s quest to shut them down.
Even though the short-term profits might be appealing to some dispensary owners, here’s perhaps the biggest reason dispensaries would choose to stick to legal sales: Just one violation prevent an existing business from getting a license to sell cannabis — either medical or recreational — once the new system is in place in 2018, Welch says. If Prop. 64 works as its authors intended, the reward goes to those who wait.
Chase Scheinbaum is a journalist who has written about rosin for
Bloomberg Businessweek and about other things for Village Voice, Men’s Journal, Thrillist, Backpacker, and other publications. He’s a writer-at-large for The Inertia and Fatherly. His superpower is speaking Danish.
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