Retail cannabis sales open up for the first time in Napa County

Retail cannabis sales have arrived in Napa County.

Four of the city of Napa's six existing medical dispensaries — Abide, The Herbivore, Harvest and Perfect Union — were cleared by the city to sell cannabis products to anyone age 21 or older this week. All except Harvest have begun selling.

Two other existing dispensaries, Eagle Eye and Napa Cannabis Collective, are still waiting on city approval. And an incoming Cookies dispensary — a major California-based retail chain, with locations across several states — is also waiting to receive an adult-use clearance before opening its doors at 2481 Second St. as the city's seventh dispensary.

There are no other dispensaries — either medical or recreational — in Napa County.

A city ordinance amendment allowing retail sales of cannabis came into effect early in March, but, because of a multi-layered approval process for an adult-use clearance, it took several weeks before any of Napa's cannabis businesses were allowed to sell such products.

Dispensary representatives say they expect the change will boost sales considerably over the coming months, allowing the dispensaries to become sustainable businesses. In part, the representatives said, that's because visitors to Napa can now get cannabis products without needing to acquire a medical-use card.

The city of Napa passed an ordinance allowing medical sales of cannabis products in 2017, which means people needed physician-approved medical use cards to buy cannabis products at the city's dispensaries. The year prior, when California voters legalized the recreational use of the drug, many municipalities like Napa allowed for medical use first to assess the impacts on the communities.

Last month, a revised version of the 2017 law allowing for recreational sales went into effect.

Napa's cannabis consumers have tended to just drive to or order from dispensaries in Vallejo, Fairfield or Santa Rosa to buy cannabis, according to Aimee Henry, an owner of Napa Cannabis Collective. But, with adult-use sales opening up in Napa, that won't be necessary.

Micah Malan, co-founder of Abide — which opened in March 2021 as Napa's fifth dispensary — said Abide received its clearance on Tuesday and opened for adult-use sales at 4:20 p.m. that day.

Abide staff members were trained to begin selling adult-use products when possible right away, he added. (Abide, however, had to stop selling to those without medical-use cards when the dispensary mistakenly opened without a city clearance in mid-March.)

McKenna Johnson, a manager at Abide, said business has begun to pick up this week, though she expects to see a greater number of customers once people know the store is selling adult-use.

Under medical use restrictions, Abide was previously turning away about 10 people each day, Malan said. His expectation now is that Abide will eventually double or even triple its sales.

"We had seven adult-use customers today, so we've already noticed an immediate change in retail sales," Malan said on Wednesday.

Riccardo Natoli, president of The Herbivore, said he's hoping the ease of adult-use sales — which only require identification showing an individual is 21 or older —will open up opportunities for collaboration with Napa's hotel and music industries.

He also said he's expecting sales will double or triple as a result of the change. The primary reason for that is the removal of the medical-use card process, Natoli said. And though that process has become easier over the years, he added, it still takes 10 to 15 minutes and $30 to $40 for those applying for the card at the dispensary, and some people — particularly visitors — have concerns about how applying for a medical-use card may disrupt the anonymity of their purchases.

"It's become a regular retail operation; it's no different than going into your local liquor store now," Natoli said. "Imagine walking into a liquor store and them asking you for medical approval."

Natoli added that he's somewhat worried about larger retailers coming into Napa, particularly because The Herbivore is aimed at a not as well established high-end luxury market, with a focus on the experience of shopping there — which he compared to "walking into a speakeasy bar where it's private and just beautifully decorated."

He compared the process of larger cannabis retailers moving into Napa's market to a Starbucks chain putting local coffee shops out of business.

So, Natoli said, he hopes the city will do more to protect current retailers.

"The four or five retailers that have been in business for two years now would've liked more community support, I think," Natoli said. "But, bottom line, it's going to increase everybody's money."

Angelica Sanchez, director of government affairs and compliance for Perfect Union — Napa's most recent dispensary, which has about a dozen locations in Northern California — said the company dealt with a similar situation of switching from medical-use only to adult-use at a location in Marysville. The store nearly tripled its customers as a result, she said.

California legalized recreational cannabis back in 2016, when 57% of California voters — and 61% of Napa County voters — approved Proposition 64. Even so, most California cities still don't allow retail cannabis sales.

Dominic Corva, co-director of the Humboldt Institute for Interdisciplinary Marijuana Research, said that, as of two years ago, roughly 70% of California's counties and cities had banned any kind of cannabis businesses. According to reporting from CalMatters, California only has a fraction of licensed dispensaries per capita compared to other states where cannabis is legal.

Cannabis products, Corva said, need to go through cultivation and manufacturing before being ready for distribution, which is where the retailers come into play. Many rural counties, such as Humboldt, Trinity, Mendocino and Lake counties, have embraced cultivation. But, the number of retail outlets allowed to sell retail cannabis has lagged because of local restrictions, he said.

"There's just been an increasing supply of product, but it hasn't been matched by retail growth," Corva said.

Even in jurisdictions that allow adult-use sales, he said, the quantity of dispensaries is often limited through local control, with clear limits on the number of permits given out or zoning regulations that limit dispensaries to certain areas.

The city of Napa doesn't enact a number limit on permits, but it does limit retailer operations to industrial and medical office-zoned areas.

In part because of the low number of retailers in California per capita compared to other states where sales are legal, the presence of the illegal cannabis market in California is still a major concern for lawmakers, Corva said.

Daniel Sumner, a UC Davis professor in the department of agricultural and resource economics, said he's been working on a book specifically focused on the issues with the legal cannabis market, and he estimates that about 75% of cannabis consumption in California is still being done with cannabis that doesn't meet all the state's legal requirements.

Corva added that he thinks California policymakers thought adapting to legal cannabis would be easier than it's turned out to be. They didn't properly consider that people, even if they support legal cannabis, might not want cannabis businesses to be near where they live, he said.

And that's for a whole host of reasons, according to Corva, including worries about the effect such businesses could have on property values, crime and minors using the drug.

"Everybody voted for it, but they didn't vote for it in their backyard," Corva said.

Show Comment