Colorado pot shops opening day: Experts, officials unsure what to expect

[dropcap]W[/dropcap]hen you finally emerge from a New Year’s Eve-induced fog, you’ll rub your eyes and be in a Colorado where any 21-year-old can walk into a pot shop and buy marijuana for no other reason than to get stoned.

And, whatever else it is, it won’t be a dream.

“We’re going from 110,000 medical marijuana patients in Colorado that are legally allowed to purchase, to a potential market of 4 billion, and that’s billion with a ‘b’,” said Michael Elliott, Executive Director of the Medical Marijuana Industry Group. “The pope could show up. The king or queen could show up from any of the countries in the world. We’re all guessing here as to what demand’s going to be.”

The excitement of industry members like Elliott, and of marijuana activists long shunted to the periphery, is palpable. A market is cracking open, bringing a once-in-a-lifetime transition from the underground into the mainstream. In Denver, at least, the war on one drug is over. A new regulated market opens, and Denver becomes a destination city to hold events that advocate for sweeping policy changes in drug laws.

[pullquote]“My expectation is the rollout is going to be really smooth, the sky is not going to fall, and the voters are going to see their will exercised.”[/pullquote]

Elliott notes Colorado is the first place in the world that allows the recreational sale of weed to any 21 year old: In Amsterdam, an official policy of tolerance allows the purchase of marijuana in coffee shops, though it’s still legally a gray area. Uruguay, which legalized pot a month ago and sent delegates to visit Denver in October, only allows registered Uruguayans to buy pot.

“We see in Amsterdam how much tourism it’s drawn in,” Elliott said. “And we’re going way above and beyond that.”

As far as supply meeting demand, tomorrow is as an enigma. Experts fear there will probably be pressure on available supply of marijuana this year, and tomorrow only 14 shops in Denver have been licensed to begin selling. This number will increase as city inspections OK more pot shops.

The Marijuana Enforcement Division mailed 348 licenses to shops across the state– including 136 for retail stores—- but businesses need approval from local authorities before they can sell to consumers. The process is rigorous, time consuming and costly, and only available to existing medical businesses that applied for retail licenses and received approval. Medical shops are allowed to make a onetime transfer of plants to their retail operation. However, if they run out of plants after the transfer, they’re out of luck and so are consumers. The amount of recreational marijuana that’s available will probably be tied to how many licenses the states and cities approve.

Black Friday-type lines might develop in front of some pot shops as people jockey to make purchases, and among them the touted influx of “pot tourists” may arrive, but they don’t seem to be coming by air. On the first day of legal sale, DIA says it won’t see an unusual increase in traffic.

“Right now, our passenger traffic is flat,” said spokesperson Stacey Stegman. “We don’t have any projections. We will have to wait and see what traffic will be like by the end of the year, especially because not all the shops will be opening all at once. Everything is going to be gradual overtime.”

The airport’s projections are based on previous years, but Stegman said it hasn’t seen any need to prepare for an influx of passengers. The airlines haven’t indicated to DIA that the airport should prepare for an increase around the New Year, Stegman said.

Anticipating the first day of sales, the city of Denver has worked closely with the industry, collaborating since the passage of Amendment 64 in hopes the first day of legal marijuana sale will go well. The city has also been coordinating on logistics with the Denver Police Department.

“We don’t know what to expect on Jan. 1,” city spokesperson Amber Miller said in an email.

Miller said the city recognizes that “crowds could amass in Denver, likely outside the new retail marijuana stores, due to the novelty of New Year’s being the first day of recreational marijuana sales.”

The city and groups around the state have been directing energy into public education to let consumers and so-called “pot tourists” know what is and isn’t legal. Colorado’s branch of NORML has a list of Doobie-DO’s that guide consumers, while Elliott’s group is working to let consumers know the limits of the law–such as, no Colorado pot can be taken out of state.

“My expectation is the rollout is going to be really smooth, the sky is not going to fall, and the voters are going to see their will exercised,” said Tim Cullen, co-owner of Evergreen Apothecary in Denver, which has its license to sell recreational pot on the first. “My parents even wanted to come down and hand out coffee and cookies. We’re anticipating some pretty large numbers.”

For Cullen, prohibition will end when the marijuana is drawn out of the black market, not just in Colorado, but across the country.

“At the end of the day, we are a retail store that sells cannabis. We only had to comply with the new rules. We’re already set up to do this business as it stands,” Cullen said. Those rules include city inspections and entering plants in the state’s online tracking system.

“It’s not overburdening, even though there has been some scramble to get everything correct. I know on Wednesday we’ll be ready. We’re good at what we do, and I anticipate we’ll be good moving forward, just busier.”