California Dispensary Laws Are Strict, and Some Are Pushing to Make Them Even Stricter

budtender at california dispensary shows product to customer, the marijuana is for display-only because california dispensary laws are strict
Editorial credit: Joe Seer /

California dispensaries must follow strict regulations to remain compliant with state law or risk losing their license. From tracking and tracing a product to collecting excise taxes, licensed California dispensaries adhere to laws provided by the Bureau of Cannabis Control to continue their operations.

These regulations aim to protect cannabis consumers by providing them with a state-approved location to purchase cannabis products that are clearly and accurately labeled. While California dispensary laws vary by municipality, here are some regulations that outline what a dispensary can and can't do.

Retail Location and Hours

cannabis products in glass display case where they need to be held because of california dispensary laws
Editorial credit: mikeledray /
In terms of location, laws require dispensaries to avoid places where young people congregate. Before even opening up, California dispensaries must seek state and city council approval for retail locations. A dispensary must also be at least 600 feet away from a K-12 school, daycare, or youth center. Retail locations may be open any time between 6 am and 10 pm Pacific Time.

Advertising and Marketing

open bag of marijuana buds

California dispensary laws about advertising and marketing vary by city and county but are typically restrictive to limit exposure to young people. Since companies like Facebook and Google prevent cannabis advertising, dispensaries must find creative ways to market locally. Laws require any advertisement to be "displayed where at least 71.6 percent of the audience is reasonably expected to be 21 years of age or older."

Advertisements must also include the business license number. Some marijuana dispensaries are using billboards to market themselves. Billboards are currently not allowed on Interstate Highway or State Highways. In Los Angeles, a recent law requires that billboards be at least 700 feet away from schools, daycare, public parks, and public libraries, although billboards are hard to avoid.

Product Display and Packaging

cannabis edible with packaging that complies with california dispensary laws
Editorial credit: Dan Holm /
California dispensary laws prohibit dispensaries from displaying products outside the store. Dispensaries are only allowed to sell cannabis products that have been previously packaged and labeled before arriving at their retail location. Cannabis that has been removed from its packaging cannot be sold. Dispensaries are allowed to take products out of their packaging for display purposes but require them to not be readily accessible to customers. Additionally, cannabis retailers are prohibited from selling tobacco and alcohol in their facility.

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Marijuana dispensaries aren't allowed to give away free products, despite practices by some unlicensed dispensaries. One exception allows licensed medical facilities to donate cannabis product to medical marijuana cardholders that have trouble accessing the product. When a customer buys a product, they must leave the facility with the product in an opaque package.

Age-Verification and Purchase Limits

bag of cannabis being held by gloved hands

Recreational dispensaries in California are required to verify that their customers are over the age of 21. Recreational consumers must have a valid identification card, while medicinal customers over the age of 18 require ID and a doctor's medical recommendation.

Medicinal consumers may use out-of-state licenses. Consumers may buy no more than one ounce of non-concentrated marijuana or 8 grams of concentrated cannabis per day. Customers may also buy no more than 6 immature plants per day. Medicinal consumers may buy up to eight ounces per day. Local law enforcement may use decoys to enforce age-verification in licensed dispensaries. In order to work at a dispensary, you must be over 21 years of age.

Payment Types

person counting 100-dollar bills

You better be prepared to bring cash to California dispensaries. While some may accept debit or credit cards and electronic wallet apps, many rely on the cash model due to obstacles in finding banking solutions. Major banks and credit card companies avoid doing business with marijuana companies.

Cash-only dispensaries may have ATMs on-site but may require a small transaction fee for the exchange. Keep in mind, recreational consumers pay a sales tax and a state excise tax of 15 percent.

Track and Trace

california marijuana grow operation with lots of plants

California dispensaries must be diligent in tracking products, lab testing, inventory, sales, and more. Certain cannabis-specific point-of-sale systems can make it easier for dispensaries to automatically comply with track and trace requirements. Tracking ensures that every cannabis product is tracked throughout its life cycle, otherwise known as “from seed-to-sale." Dispensaries must submit reports every day on all of its retail activity including disposal of products.

California uses the Metrc system, an acronym for Marijuana Enforcement Tracking Reporting Compliance. Popularized in Colorado, this system is used by most recreational markets to keep track of inventory and comply with state regulations. Retailers are required to keep track of every sale, return, or disposal and submit reports by 11:59 pm every day.

Security and Surveillance

security camera on wall like the ones that dispensaries need to have to comply with california dispensary laws

In terms of security, California dispensaries are required to provide every employee with a "laminated or plastic-coated identification badge at all time while engaging in commercial cannabis activity." The badge must display an employee's first name, employee number, and a color photograph.

Dispensaries must provide security personnel and 24-hour video surveillance in all areas where cannabis commercial activity is being performed. Camera resolution must be at least 1280 x 720 pixels and placed in areas like entrances and exits and limited-access areas where cannabis products are stored. Dispensaries must also have alarm systems and commercial-grade locks that secure cannabis products.

Some California communities continue their effort to create stricter regulations for California dispensaries. In San Diego, for example, local elected representatives are crafting proposals that aim to reduce dispensary advertising to young people. While California dispensary laws may be well-intentioned, the key to ensuring safe consumption is more cannabis education by retailers and cannabis brands.

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