Only One In Seven California Cities Allow Recreational Marijuana Stores

Photo Credit: Gabrielle Lurie

Eighteen months after California voters enthusiastically endorsed legal marijuana, just one in seven cities in the state allow recreational cannabis stores, according to a first-of-its-kind study by this news organization and its California partners. And only one in three allow any kind of cannabis business at all.

Proposition 64, approved by 57 percent of state voters in November 2016, promised to bring California into a hazy new age, making it legal for people to carry up to an ounce of marijuana and to grow it at home. But it also gave cities and counties a strong say into exactly what would be allowed and when. The result is a crazy quilt of regulation.

Our study is the most comprehensive look to date at how the industry is taking shape. Some towns — among them San Jose and Oakland — are cannabis friendly, allowing a wide range of businesses to cultivate or peddle a product that residents are free to use. Other cities — including many smaller jurisdictions across the Bay Area — are less enthusiastic, with some blocking virtually every type of marijuana-related enterprise and, in some cases, passing ordinances that seem aimed at regulating personal use as much as possible, despite the voters’ will.

We began gathering details on local marijuana policies last year. In January, just as recreational sales became legal, we launched a database with some of that information, offering cannabis rules from about half the state. Now, with the state about to celebrate its first 4/20 since sales began, we’ve upgraded that work, with rules from all 540 city and county jurisdictions in California.

The information is included in our online database, where readers can search policies by location or by business type. You can also sort cities on our 100-point scale of marijuana friendliness.

You can view the full searchable database at

The data reveals some interesting trends, conflicts and anomalies. It also shows that leaders in some communities are far less enthusiastic (and in a small number of cases, more enthusiastic) about cannabis than the residents who voted for and against Prop 64.

Among the findings:

• Fewer than one in three California cities (144 out of 482) allow any kind of cannabis business to operate in their borders. And just 18 of the state’s 58 counties permit cannabis businesses in unincorporated areas.

• Fewer than one in five California cities even allow medical marijuana dispensaries, even though medical marijuana has been legal in California since 1996.

• Of the 144 cities that permit marijuana businesses in their borders, just 57 are levying taxes on the industry (which doesn’t mean cannabis in the 87 others is tax-free; there is a state tax of 15 percent). That’s largely because Proposition 64 requires governments to get voter approval for their tax schemes. But cities that have approved taxes are beginning to rake in the dough: San Jose made nearly $2.2 million in cannabis revenue in the first two months of the year, while Oakland made $2.86 million in the first quarter.

• While state law says cities cannot completely ban adults from growing six marijuana plants, officials from two tiny Northern California towns — Gridley in Butte County and Montague in Siskiyou County — do exactly that, saying it is illegal in those jurisdictions to grow cannabis indoors or outdoors. Fresno County’s Selma is taking a different approach to the issue: It allows homegrows, but charges the state’s highest cost for a permit to do so, $1,420 for those six plants.

Many people seem to think it’s a free-for-all when it comes to cannabis in California now that recreational marijuana is legal. But as the numbers above show, that’s far from the case. And even our numbers may paint an overly enthusiastic picture.

A couple dozen cities — places such as Moreno Valley and Davis — have passed rules to allow marijuana businesses, but have yet to fully develop the regulations, or issue permits, to let those businesses start. And only once those regulations are in place can a marijuana business apply for the needed state license.

That’s why even though 61 cities and nine counties have ordinances on the books that allow recreational marijuana stores, as of April 6, 2018, the state Bureau of Cannabis Control had licensed recreational shops in only 34 cities and five unincorporated county areas of California.

A couple dozen cities are leading the pack on our marijuana-friendliness scale, meaning they’re the most lenient cities in the state when it comes to cannabis policy.

Riverside County has by far the highest number of permissive cities, with six that score above 96 points on our scale. A few other counties have two 96-point cities each, including Los Angeles and Sonoma. Oakland is the only Bay Area city that surpasses the 96-point threshold, although San Jose is just under, with 93 points.

To get above 96 points, cities and counties must allow every type of marijuana business licensed by the state. That means permitting medical and recreational licenses for cannabis sales, cultivation, manufacturing, distribution and testing. They would also have to allow their residents to grow marijuana at home, both indoors and outdoors.

More than five dozen cities score a zero on our scale of cannabis friendliness — including, in the Bay Area, Fremont, Hercules, Colma and Campbell.

Many areas are far less hospitable: Every city in the tiny counties of Madera and Sutter have passed the toughest rules possible.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is in Humboldt County, which is famous for cannabis production. Despite the region’s reputation as a cannabis hotbed, and despite having a couple cities where cannabis ordinances are lenient, four of the seven cities in Humboldt County earn zero points on our scale. Of course, Humboldt County continues to have a thriving black market, with which legal sales might compete.

To get a zero score on our scale, a city has to ban all marijuana businesses, block residents from growing marijuana for personal use outdoors and require them to get a permit to grow it inside their homes.

In some cities and counties, cannabis industry rules contrast sharply with how residents there voted on Prop. 64.

Imperial County again stands out. Only 45 percent of unincorporated county residents there voted in favor of legalizing recreational marijuana. But the Imperial County Board of Supervisors voted in November to welcome every type of cannabis business, giving the area a score of 95.9 on our scale of permissiveness.

Oakdale and Riverbank, in Stanislaus County, are the only two cities in the state that welcome every type of recreational marijuana business even though a majority of residents in both cities voted against Prop. 64.

In other places, local policies are very much in line with voter wishes.

West Hollywood and Berkeley voters, for example, tied with a high of 83 percent of residents approving Prop. 64. Both cities also have liberal cannabis policies, just missing the leader board for most permissive cities in the state because they block commercial cultivation and other behind-the-scenes businesses.

Kingsburg, in Fresno County, also has policies that align with election numbers. Residents of the farming town opposed Prop. 64 more than anywhere else in California, with only 35 percent favoring marijuana legalization. And city council members have taken a similar stance, with policies that earn Kingsburg 0.5 out of 100 points on our scale of marijuana friendliness.