EXCITEMENT levels were, well, high in California on January 1st, the first day on which marijuana stores in the state were authorised to sell the drug for recreational purposes. Queues to buy THC-infused chocolate-chip cookies, cannabis mints and plain old marijuana flowers stretched down blocks and snaked around corners in cities such as San Diego and Santa Ana. In honour of the historic day, Jack in the Box, a fast-food chain, teamed up with the cannabis company owned by Snoop Dogg, a rap artist, to create a “Merry Munchie Meal” containing a veritable grease-feast of chicken strips, tacos, churros, onion rings and French fries all for $4.20. But is the selling of recreational marijuana now legal across the Golden State?

California was the first state in America to legalise medical marijuana, in 1996. But since then its marijuana market has been largely unregulated—a fact that has earned the state ample criticism. In November 2016, following the precedent set by citizens of Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington, Californians overwhelmingly approved Proposition 64: to legalise and regulate the sale of marijuana for recreation. After a year of frenzied planning that culminated in 278 pages of new rules, by January 1st several dozen stores had been granted permission to begin selling marijuana to purely recreational users. 

But the regulations also granted counties and municipalities ample authority over how and when to grant the licences. West Hollywood’s dispensaries opened for business on January 2nd, a day later than those in areas such as the Coachella Valley and San Diego. Stores in the rest of Los Angeles are still waiting for approval to sell recreational weed. After providing licences to medical dispensaries in good standing, the city will give priority to low-income applicants with previous marijuana convictions, to try to mitigate some of the harms wrought by criminalisation. Beverly Hills and Irvine, on the other hand, have decided not to allow the sale of retail marijuana at all, as has Kern County, which contains Bakersfield. Even without the participation of such places, California is by far the largest market for recreational marijuana in the world. Researchers at the Agricultural Issues Centre at the University of California in Davis project that sales from recreational cannabis will eventually reach $5bn a year. The state already sells more than $2bn a year in medical marijuana. In comparison, Colorado sold $1.3bn in both recreational and medical marijuana in 2016. 

California policymakers hope that the legalisation of recreational marijuana will shrink the robust black market for the drug. According to Arcview Market Research and BDS Analytics, two cannabis research firms, illicit trade currently represents 74% of marijuana spending in California. Buying at licensed dispensaries rather than through dealers on street corners will keep consumers safer, undercut drug-trafficking organisations, and give the state’s coffers a boost that can be put towards preventing substance abuse and repairing environmental damage from illegal cannabis farming. But, especially if retail prices exceed black-market ones, California should not be too hopeful about illegal marijuana disappearing entirely. Illicit trade still accounts for 51% of marijuana spending in Washington, 49% in Oregon and 27% in Colorado, where it competes with tax-paying commercial ventures.