Much of the rest of the state may be on the edge of a cultural revolution now that recreational cannabis is legal in California.

But in red-meat Kern County — and several other counties in California — there's still plenty of resistance to these changes.

What has changed? And what hasn’t changed here in the southern valley?

First the basics: As of Jan. 1, anyone 21 or older in California can legally consume marijuana. According to state law, it's now legal to buy and sell cannabis for recreational use.

But here's the rub: In order to steer clear of the law, you must purchase your buds or your edibles from a licensed recreational cannabis dispensary. And because the City of Bakersfield and the County of Kern opted to prohibit such dispensaries, selling and purchasing weed outside of a medical marijuana dispensary remains against the law here, practically speaking.

The only exceptions in the region are Arvin, which voted last year to allow commercial cultivation, but not commercial sales, and the Mojave Desert community of California City, which has liberalized the use of medicinal marijuana. Former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson and partners recently broke ground on a proposed cannabis resort in the town.

It's long been legal for users of medical marijuana to grow up to six plants for personal use. Now the same rules apply to recreational smokers, but you have to keep your plants hidden from public view (always a good idea, anyway, to discourage theft).

Of course it remains illegal to consume marijuana while driving — and it's still against the law to smoke in public places.

One more thing that hasn't changed? The federal government still classifies pot as a Schedule I drug, in the same category as heroin and LSD.

The huge gap between federal and state law sometimes catches local law enforcement in the middle.

"The feds should either enforce the law or change it," Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood said Tuesday.

For that very reason, Youngblood declined to talk about what's changed and what hasn't as a result of the new law.

"If I say it's legal to smoke, but it's still a federal felony," Youngblood said, "I could be hurting somebody."

While he acknowledged it's a longshot that federal officers would swoop in over such violations, the discrepancies between the federal and state laws nevertheless gave him pause.

"We are in the crosshairs in the middle of this," he said. "And we don't want to be."

The intersection of pot use, driving and the law isn't as simple as it may seem, either. Ask the California Highway Patrol what percentage of DUIs are cannabis-related, and you may hear something like this:

"As of now, we do not have stats on marijuana arrests," said officer Roberto Rodriguez, a spokesman for the California Highway Patrol's Bakersfield office.

The California Vehicle Code, he said, makes specific reference to alcohol — and drugs as a broad category — but does not reference a particular drug.

"The primary concern of the California Highway Patrol is the safety of the motoring public," Rodriguez said. "Drivers are reminded that cannabis can impair their ability to safely operate a vehicle and that it is illegal to drive while under the influence of alcohol, cannabis, prescription medication or any combination."

Bakersfield and Kern are hardly alone in their opposition to the commercialization of cannabis. 

"The truth is, a large number of California counties and cities will not be lighting up a new multibillion-dollar recreational pot industry on January 1," local recreational pot opponent Tom Alexander said in an email.

"More California counties and cities have chosen to ban all forms of commercial cannabis activity than those who are allowing the industry in their cities or counties," Alexander said.

Indeed, the changes in cannabis laws have not been without controversy. The number of medical marijuana dispensaries and their placement near neighborhoods has some complaining that crime often follows.

Despite the softening of societal views toward cannabis, two local medical dispensary operators declined to comment on the record for this story. One said privately that it's like painting a target on your back — that remaining out of the public debate is smarter in the long run.

Ask supporters of recreational or even medical cannabis, and the message becomes clear. Pot may be legal, and may even be more widely accepted.

But putting yourself out there in support, especially in places like conservative Bakersfield, may not always be in your best interest.

Steven Mayer can be reached at 661-395-7353. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter: @semayerTBC.

(2) comments


A comment from a true pot head......

Tam Daras

The picture at the head of this article is poor quality weed. It has broken buds, dry shake, and is most likely contaminated with mold and mites. Those 08ers sure know how to live.

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