First sales of recreational marijuana in Berkeley usher in ‘whole new era’

Mikki Norris, right, with her husband Chris Conrad are longtime marijuana advocates, and were the first to buy recreational marijuana in Berkeley at 6 a.m. on Jan. 1.
Joshua Jordan/Senior Staff
Mikki Norris, right, with her husband Chris Conrad are longtime marijuana advocates, and were the first to buy recreational marijuana in Berkeley at 6 a.m. on Jan. 1.

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Just hours into the new year, dozens of California residents lined up on a “green carpet” outside the country’s longest-running dispensary to be the first to purchase recreational marijuana in Berkeley.

In a city with a history of advocacy for marijuana legalization and decriminalization, the pre-dawn ribbon-cutting ceremony at Berkeley Patients Group was a victory celebration of what has been decades of activism and lobbying efforts by many in the community. In November 2016, California approved Proposition 64, which legalized marijuana sales for adults 21 and older.

At 6 a.m. on the dot, Chris Conrad and Mikki Norris, longtime cannabis experts based in El Sobrante, made the first purchase of legal recreational cannabis at the dispensary, breaking a crisp $100 bill to buy a chocolate bar and three joints containing the marijuana strain “Jack Herer” — named after a friend who was colloquially known in the industry as the “Emperor of Hemp” before passing away in 2010.

“I feel like it’s a huge accomplishment,” Conrad said. “Marijuana should never have been illegal in the first place, so to have gotten to this moment feels like a huge advance.”

Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín, along with State Sen. Nancy Skinner, also attended the ceremony. Arreguín called the day “a long time coming.”

“These are definitely high times for Berkeley and California,” Arreguín said at the ceremony. When later asked, he added that he had no plans on buying marijuana for personal use.

Though California legalized medical marijuana in 1996, the first state to do so, Berkeley had been a bulwark for legalized cannabis use many years prior. Since 1979, city laws have directed local police to bump marijuana law enforcement down as its lowest priority.

Joshua Jordan/Senior Staff

Joshua Jordan/Senior Staff

“When I think about how many people have been incarcerated due to drug laws — and especially marijuana laws — and the havoc that that had created on neighborhoods and families, I’m really glad this prohibition has been lifted,” said Skinner, who helped coordinate the 1979 initiative.

While the fight for marijuana legalization in California may have been won, Roger LaChance, operations manager at Berkeley Patients Group, said there are still plenty of challenges for the marijuana industry to overcome in the weeks and months to come.

Citing prohibitively high tax rates and regulations that require farmers and distributors to “preselect” whether to handle medical marijuana products or adult-use ones — despite the two often being virtually identical — LaChance said the dispensary plans to be at the forefront of additional policymaking efforts in Berkeley and in California.

It’s almost surreal. We’re entering a whole new era, and there’s a lot that still needs to be worked out,” said Sabrina Fendrick, the dispensary’s director of government affairs. “But as we continue to develop the industry, it’s going to be a symbiotic relationship with everybody.”

Per Prop. 64, customers will pay a 15 percent state excise tax on cannabis products, which could generate $1 billion or more for California per year. In Berkeley, there is an additional 10 percent sales tax on adult-use cannabis.

In addition to Berkeley Patients Group, recreational cannabis can be purchased within the city at Berkeley Patient’s Care Collective and Cannabis Buyers Club Berkeley. In October, City Council passed temporary rules that allowed these previously licensed medical marijuana dispensaries to sell recreational pot in time for Jan. 1.

Joshua Jordan/Senior Staff

Joshua Jordan/Senior Staff

Despite the high prices and cold temperatures of the early morning, many of the customers lining up on New Year’s Day said they were excited to be part of the ushering in of a new era ending marijuana prohibition.

Serving as the ceremony’s hype man, cannabis advocate Mike “Big Mike” Barnes, who was decked out in a marijuana-patterned suit, pins and beads, said he had been looking forward to Jan. 1 but added, “ironically, all of tonight and today I haven’t smoked a damn thing.”

“Hopefully we’ll blaze a path forward that will not only decriminalize but also embrace this new economy,” Arreguín said at the ceremony.

Alexandra Yoon-Hendricks is the managing editor. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @ayoonhendricks.