Is Weed Legal in California?

One of the most common queries we get is simply, "is weed legal in California?" And the short answer is…yes!

Weed is legal in California and has been since January 2018. However there are rules and regulations that govern the legality of cannabis in California, and it's not as straight forward as it seems. Then again, when is it ever in the cannabis world?

California, the world's sixth-largest economy, has been cutting the path for some time now, as it relates to cannabis legalisation. In as far back as 1972, California hosted the nation's first-ever ballot to legalise cannabis. Proposition 19 failed, however, with more than 60% of the State against it. Not a bad percentage mind you, when you consider that Nixon's War on Drugs was already well underway.

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In 1996, Medicinal cannabis was legalised through Proposition 215. Proposition 215, also known as the Compassionate Use Act, meant (initially) that cannabis could be used as a medicinal option for the treatment of a range of conditions, including arthritis, nausea, chronic pain, and epilepsy. As time progressed, the number of conditions that would qualify for medicinal use of cannabis broadened, and with it, patient numbers.

Then in 2016, Proposition 64 was passed. The proposition, also known as the Adult Use of Marijuana Act (AUMA), allows adults over the age of 21 to possess, privately grow, purchase and consume cannabis for recreational use. In addition, the AUMA also legalised the commercial production, distribution and sale of cannabis for recreational use at State-licensed facilities and dispensaries from January 1, 2018.

And on the first day of 2018, California officially opened its doors to recreational cannabis. This is by far the largest recreational market in the US, and the foundation on which most of the models used to estimate future market size are built. However, California's lifting of prohibition has not lived up to expectation, as many in the industry have struggled to make the transition from the black or grey market, into the legal market.

Is weed legal in California?

  • Yes, California legalised medicinal cannabis in 1996 and recreational cannabis in 2016
  • Since January 1 2018, recreational cannabis has been available for purchase by any persons 21 and older
  • Up to an ounce (~28 grams) can be bought, sold, gifted and/or carried for personal use, at any one time
  • Cannabis can only be consumed and/or grown indoors and in private residences.
  • Many State and Local Government taxes apply to legal cannabis
  • This, in turn, is hurting the legal industry, with high prices driving consumers to the black market

So who exactly can buy weed in California?

In California, dispensaries can sell cannabis for recreational use (R) or choose to focus on medicinal cannabis (M) instead. Dispensaries can also apply to sell to both markets.

In order to purchase recreational cannabis from R-rated dispensaries, adults must be 21 years or older and are required to present a government-issued photo ID before being allowed into the dispensary. Adults between the age of 18-20 may only enter a dispensary that is strictly medicinal in nature (rated M) and can purchase their medicinal cannabis with proof of enrolment in the State's medicinal marijuana program.

How much legal weed can you buy?

We emphasise the word "legal" above, as the black market still thrives in California. In the black market, customers can purchase as much as they like, whereas, in the legal market, consumers can purchase up to an ounce of weed at any one time. Should the consumer be a medicinal cannabis patient, then this amount is significantly increased to 8 ounces, which can be purchased at any one time.

Where can you buy legal weed in California?

This is where it gets interesting. You see, although the answer to the question "is weed legal in California" is yes, Proposition 64 also gave local governments autonomy in deciding how to adopt legalisation. Recreational weed must be purchased from a state-registered licensed dispensary. The Bureau of Cannabis Control issues licenses to dispensaries for both medical and recreational marijuana, but the States have the final say in whether or not to even allow them to set up shop in the first place.

In fact, most of the cities and counties across California have banned recreational retail altogether. This has escalated further, with many of the counties also banning the home delivery of cannabis, which is completely legal in California. It remains to be seen if this ban will be upheld, as it is currently being challenged.

Is home growing weed legal?

Cannabis Home Grow Kits
Source: Seedo

It is legal for persons aged 21 and over to cultivate (home grow) up to 6 cannabis plants per household. For medicinal use, that number rises to 12 plants per household.  And the home-grow industry is increasing year on year, as new equipment and turnkey grow kits drive usage through convenience and costs savings.

However, you cannot simply plant them in your backyard. The law specifically prohibits homegrown cannabis to be planted in the garden and/or any place that is visible to the public. 

Where can you legally smoke weed in California?

The law is very prescriptive on this one. Cannabis can only be consumed for recreational purposes at private residences, or rental facilities that allow it. Smoking is prohibited in any public place, with fines for infringement ranging from USD$100 to $250. For any residence that is rented, the landlord has the discretion to decide whether cannabis can be consumed on the premises or not. Indeed many hotels throughout California have banned smoking weed in their rooms.

And this is one of the biggest issues with recreational cannabis…there's really nowhere it's allowed if you are not a native resident, or renting an Airbnb that's cool with a puff or two. But, this too is beginning to change. Already there are cannabis lounges open in San Francisco that are modelled on Amsterdam's coffee shops. We expect to see more of these lounges pop up as legalisation "matures".

Taxing the legal weed market in California 

Cannabis is subject to a standard sales and use tax of between 7.5% to 9.25%. From here, all retail sales of cannabis are subject to an additional 15% excise tax. Those licensed to cultivate and manufacture cannabis in California are also subject to a cultivation tax of USD$9.25 per pound of cannabis flower.

It is this tax however, that is seen as one of the primary drivers behind the continued strength of the black market. The whole point of legalisation was to try and eradicate the black market, and the crime and lack of quality control that comes with it. But with cannabis being so heavily taxed, many consumers prefer to obtain cannabis from the black market, where prices can be as much as 40% lower than in the legal market.

Is weed legal in California? You bet it is.

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Mark Bernberg
Mark Bernberg

Mark Bernberg is a long-time cannabis investing enthusiast and founder of The Green Fund, Asia Pacific's preeminent media house, positioned at the forefront of the global cannabis industry.

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