Crowds swamp San Diego's pot shops on first day of recreational marijuana sales

San Diego’s legal pot shops were nearly overrun by customers on New Year’s Day as thousands turned out for the historic start of recreational marijuana sales in California.

Nervous retailers thought that consumer demand might be soft because medical marijuana has long been available, and it’s easy to get.

But before dawn on Monday, lines began to form outside stores like Urbn Leaf in Bay Park and Torrey Holistics in Sorrento Valley. And they only grew longer.

By sunset, 170 people were still lined up at Urbn Leaf, which had already served more than 800 customers, roughly triple its normal business.

Everyone from older people in leisure suits to a young guy in pajamas showed up, waiting upwards of an hour in line to buy such things as slim, pre-rolled joints to packaged buds to creams, drinks and foods that had been infused with marijuana.

“They’re coming in droves,” said Will Senn, co-founder of Urbn Leaf, which has a second store in Golden Hill. “I really underestimated what would happen.”

Senn whipped up some of the demand, busing in customers from a bar in Pacific Beach. He also used 27 drivers to make deliveries throughout San Diego, which is currently the only part of the county where recreational cannabis can be sold.

“We can deliver marijuana in 20 minutes; it’s like pizza,” said Senn, who has doubled his workforce in Bay Park in recent weeks.

Torrey Holistics in Sorrento Valley also was thrumming. It served more than 500 people through noon and had another 150 standing in line, waiting to get into its small shop, which was filled with customers.

“We’re celebrating by holding raffles and live music,” said Ruthie Edison, the store’s marketing director. “People are being very patient.”

The city’s southernmost retailer, a small shop in Otay Mesa known as A Green Alternative, served about 80 people by noon, matching its daily tally. Workers said demand was overwhelming all day.

“I’ve noticed a lot of customers wearing sunglasses; there’s still a stigma when it comes to marijuana,” said Zach Lazarus, the store’s co-founder. “But that’s going to fade away.”

California has been both a leader and a lagger when it come to cannabis.

In 1996, it became the first state to approve medical marijuana, legislation that has since spread to almost 30 other states.

But California trailed other states in approving recreational marijuana, which is also known as “adult use” cannabis.

Things changed in November 2016 when voters approved Proposition 64, which made it legal for people to possess marijuana, and to grow a small amount. The law also made it legal to sell “adult use” weed in licensed shops.

It took the state and participating communities more than a year to set regulations and issue licenses. More than 70 percent of the state’s counties and cities opted out of the program, banning the sale or cultivation, or both, of marijuana.

But many cities — particularly San Diego — embraced the opportunity, hoping to raise millions of dollars in tax revenue. San Diego lawmakers created a supply chain for the cultivation, manufacture, testing and sale of cannabis, and cleared the way for at least 17 stores to sell recreational pot.

About one dozen of those stores were in operation on Monday, and they didn’t have to wait around for customers to show up.

At 6:30 a.m., Richard Gold of Lemon Grove stood in the dark, and lingering fog, waiting for the 7 a.m. opening of A Green Alternative.

“This is historic, and I wanted to be the first person in line,” he said.

“I’ve been smoking marijuana for 55 years. It is a good way to stay calm. I believe that this should be legal across the country.”

Gold was followed into the store by Karla Cendejas of Chula Vista, who said, “Weed is my thing and I didn’t want to miss this. It’s really exciting.”

At Urbn Leaf in Bay Park, Danielle Shea of Pittsfield, Mass., stood patiently in line, amused by the mash of people surrounding her.

“I’m on vacation and we don’t have this sort of thing yet in Massachusetts, so I came here,” Shea said. “It’s so beautiful to see this room filled with happy, chill people.”

A few feet away, Nick Marquez of Linda Vista picked up a bag of pre-rolled joints and headed for the door, smiling.

“Marijuana doesn’t have the same stigma that it used to have, back when it was associated with things like cocaine,” Marquez said. “And it’s definitely better than drinking, which is bad for you. Drinking makes you do stupid things.”

For a list of dispensaries, please see:

http://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/news/pac-legal-recreational-cannabis-dispensaries-20171228-story.html

Twitter: @grobbins

gary.robbins@sduniontribune.com

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