Perspective: California Legalization Is Lumbering to Life

Published on December 27, 2018 · Last updated July 28, 2020
(Jamie Soja for Leafly)

California’s legal cannabis industry is lumbering to life. But you wouldn’t know it from the groans of the industry and its critics. As the end of the first year of legal cannabis sales in California nears, let’s look back on some major hurdles that were overcome:

  • Criminal justice savings
  • Unprecedented tax revenue
  • Regulation of one of the state’s biggest industries for the first time

Criminal Justice

Cannabis was prohibited in California for more than 80 years before legalization in 2016. At its peak, police made over 100,000 arrests a year for marijuana.

The Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates that the state spent more than $100 million a year on trials and prison cells for pot cases. That’s mostly over.Looking For Legal Cannabis?Just 6,000 marijuana arrests occurred in California in 2017 and that number should drop further this year. That’s for a state of 38 million people.

Prosecutors have released thousands of suspects from county jails, where they sit, unable to afford bail, and await trial for activities that are no longer crimes. Prosecutors have also dismissed many more thousands of marijuana cases that were pending before Prop 64 took effect.

Prop 64’s expungement also clears the records of tens of thousands of citizens so they can get housing and jobs. Automatic expungement became the law of the state this fall, affecting millions of Californians.


Yes, they keep coming in below projections. California might take in less than $600 million in cannabis taxes for 2018, but the target goal is $1 billion.

But more than halfway to the target in year one looks like a win to me. Especially when you consider that Maine also legalized in 2016 and not a single cent in taxes has been collected there because regulators blocked or delayed implementation. Massachusetts also just opened this fall.

It’s not a matter of the the glass being half empty or half full. We’re lucky there’s a glass at all. 65 percent of California cities and counties still ban legal cannabis commerce.


A new era of regulations began this year. Yes, it’s been turbulent—everyone knew it would be. Cannabis is a $10 billion state industry and regulators started from scratch. But they’ve consistently met or beat deadlines, unlike their peers in other states.

State regulators beat the odds and got sales started on Jan. 1. They went on to license more than 1,200 active businesses this year, inspected 800 stores, and began shutting down unlicensed shops. They oversaw the testing of 17,000 cannabis batches for purity and labeling and now all legal cannabis in the state is in child-resistant packaging.

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California didn’t have any major recalls or public health scares like you regularly see with E. coli on lettuce or kids eating tide soap pods.

This November, the BCC beat deadlines again, issuing the first annual licenses to fully background-approved and fingerprinted cannabis operators.

Yet still, watchers carp about the robust black market.

Yes, people are still going to dealers, and weed is cheaper on the street than it is in the store.

But we need to ask ourselves a big question: what’s a reasonable timeline for ending the illicit market?

When it came to alcohol, federal prohibition lasted 13 years, but it took decades to unwind that failed experiment. Pot prohibition, which is still the federal law of the land, could take even longer. When you consider the broad sweep of California’s cannabis history, 2018 looks like a reasonable step in the right direction.

Yes, it’s been a slow, heavy, and awkward journey. But real and lasting change always is.

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David Downs
David Downs
Leafly Senior Editor David Downs is the former Cannabis Editor of the San Francisco Chronicle. He's appeared on The Today Show, and written for Scientific American, The New York Times, WIRED, Rolling Stone, The Onion A/V Club, High Times, and many more outlets. He is a 2023 judge for The Emerald Cup, and has covered weed since 2009.
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