SANTA CRUZ, Calif. (CN) – About 50 people waited outside KindPeoples marijuana dispensary just outside downtown Santa Cruz, California, before dawn on New Year’s Day. Despite the early hour on a day where sleeping in is typical, they came to celebrate the first day of legal recreational marijuana sales in California.
“It’s the end of Prohibition,” said Khalil Moutawakkil, a co-owner of KindPeoples, to enthusiastic applause.
The honorary first purchase was made by Craig Reinarman, a retired sociology professor from the University of California, Santa Cruz, who taught a class for many years about America’s drug policy and its negative impact on society.
“People confuse use with abuse,” he said. Such confusion has led to unnecessary criminalization of individuals who use marijuana and subsequently crowded jails, struggles with employment and even impacts on how people can obtain public housing.
“To see it rolled back is an encouraging sign,” Reinarman said.
The former professor said he often told his students legal marijuana would not happen in his lifetime but would occur eventually, probably in theirs.
“It’s come about faster than I imagined,” he said, adding society must proceed carefully with legalization while investing in research about marijuana and its effects on human health and behavior.
Many customers expressed jubilation about the years of marijuana advocacy and what they hope is a reduction in the public stigma surrounding the drug.
“It’s a wonderful experience being here,” said Toby Edwards, who arrived at the dispensary at 5:30 a.m. for the opportunity to be one of the first in line.
Edwards, a Santa Cruz native, journeyed from his current home of Florida to be present for the first day of legal recreational marijuana sales in California.
“It’s a well-run joint,” he said after his purchase, blithely unaware of the pun. “The staff talks you through their products, their price points. It’s really helpful.”
While Santa Cruz’s reputation as a hippy enclave makes it a natural place to celebrate legalization, dispensaries throughout California – from the little beachside village of Sebastopol to giant San Diego – opened their doors.
But President Donald Trump’s administration, particularly Attorney General Jeff Sessions, have indicated opposition to the legalization trend. Marijuana remains a Schedule 1 controlled substance under federal law, making it tricky for California businesses to use traditional banks for their businesses.
“There is some discomfort with the new administration,” said Moutawakkil. “But polls show that 70 percent of Americans support legalization and we believe democracy will prevail on this issue.”
But legalization is not without its critics, even outside the White House.
Critics say legalization leads to increase in availability for young people, pointing to studies showing kids fare worse in school and are less likely to graduate from high school if they use marijuana.
Increases in traffic fatalities, hospitalizations and marijuana poisonings especially from edibles also accompany legalization, critics maintain.
However, proponents say these issues, to the extent they exist, are offset by the enormous boon to criminal justice reform. They point to studies that show access to marijuana correlates to lower rates of opioid use and overdoses – the leading cause of death in Americans under 50 years old in 2017.
“The vast amount of people who smoke marijuana present no trouble to society,” said Reinarman, adding that legalizing, regulating and studying cannabis can only lead to a greater understanding rather than blanket prohibitions.