Up Early and in Line for a Marijuana Milestone in Colorado
They lined up before dawn and in the snow on Wednesday, baby boomers from Nebraska, retirees from Denver and a young man who had driven all day from Ohio. Some were longtime marijuana users. Some had been arrested for marijuana possession.
They were among the hundreds of tourists and residents across Colorado who eagerly took part in the country’s first-ever sales of state-regulated recreational marijuana. They walked into 40 shops, from downtown Denver to snowy ski resorts, flashed their identifications and, in a single transaction, took part in what supporters hailed as a historic departure from drug laws focused on punishment and prohibition.
“It makes you giddy to say it: I went into a store and bought pot,” Linda Walmsley said as she walked out of the Denver Kush Club, where a line of shivering customers stretched down the block.
While about 20 states allow medical marijuana, voters in Colorado and Washington State decided last year to go one step further, becoming the first in the nation to legalize small amounts of the plant for recreational use and regulate it like alcohol. Colorado began promptly on New Year’s Day.
To supporters, it was a watershed moment in the country’s tangled relationship with the drug. They said it was akin to the end of Prohibition, albeit with joints being passed instead of Champagne being uncorked.
Leica Zayat, left, and Mark Harris serve customers in Evergreen Apothecary in Denver.
Beej Jackson, left, and Amber Bacca serve customers in Evergreen Apothecary in Denver.
Customers wait to be served in the LoDo Wellness Center in Denver.
To skeptics, it represented a grand folly that they predicted would tarnish the image of a state whose official song is John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High” and lead to higher teenage drug use and more impaired driving. The governor and the Denver mayor both opposed legalization and stayed away from the celebrations and inaugural sales on Wednesday.
Regulators said Colorado’s first sales — on a day called Green Wednesday by enthusiasts — went smoothly. Security guards were stationed outside dispensaries, and police officers and state officials watched closely.
Skeptical federal authorities are also paying attention. Although marijuana remains illegal under federal law, the Justice Department has given tentative approval for Colorado and Washington to move ahead with regulating marijuana. But it warned that federal officials could intervene if the state regulations failed to keep the drug away from children, drug cartels or federal property, and out of other states.
On Wednesday, Colorado had eight investigators out checking retailers’ licenses, inspecting packaging and labeling, and ensuring that stores reviewed customers’ identification to see if they were 21 or older, said Ron Kammerzell, the director of enforcement for Colorado’s Department of Revenue.
“So far, so good,” he said.
Ever since voters in Colorado and Washington approved recreational marijuana last year, the states have been racing to devise rules on how to grow it, sell it, tax it and track it.
In both Colorado and Washington, recreational marijuana has been legal for more than a year. Adults can smoke it in their living rooms and eat marijuana-laced cookies without fear of arrest. In Colorado, they are even allowed to grow up to six plants at home. But until Wednesday, marijuana dispensaries could sell only to customers with a doctor’s recommendation and a state-issued medical marijuana card.
Many people who lined up on Wednesday said they did not have medical cards, and had relied on drug dealers or friends with medical marijuana to satisfy their cravings. They were paying high prices for new recreational marijuana — $50 to $60 for an eighth of an ounce, nearly double the price of medical marijuana — but said it was worthwhile to avoid the risk.
“People don’t like breaking the law,” said Andy Williams, who runs the Medicine Man dispensary in an industrial park in Denver. “The burden has been taken off them.”
In the ski resort town Breckenridge, customers were waiting for the store to open at 08:00
Customers wait in a long line for their turn to buy recreational marijuana outside the LoDo Wellness Center in on Tuesday, January 1, in Denver as Colorado became the first state in the nation to allow retail pot shops.
Marijuana dries next to a harvest calendar in the grow room of the LoDo Wellness Center in Denver.
Now, any Colorado resident who is at least 21 can buy up to an ounce of marijuana at one of the dispensaries that began selling to retail customers on Wednesday. Out-of-state visitors can buy a quarter-ounce, but they have to consume it here. Carrying marijuana across state lines remains illegal, and the plant is not allowed at Denver International Airport.
On Wednesday, some tourists puzzled over where they would consume their purchases. It is illegal to smoke marijuana in public, in public parks or in campgrounds, and it is against the rules at many hotels. One group from Nebraska said it would find a parking lot and roll up the car windows. Others said they would return to their hotels and crack the windows. Some bought marijuana-laced baked goods to avoid the problem altogether.
Kirstin Knouse, 24, flew here from Chicago with her husband, Tristan, to take her first marijuana vacation, and she said the couple would smoke their marijuana at the home of a cousin. She said that she suffered from seizures and fibromyalgia, and her husband from post-traumatic stress, but that they had not been able to get medical marijuana at home. When Colorado opened sales to out-of-state residents, she said they leapt at the chance.
“This is our dream,” Ms. Knouse said. “We’re thinking about moving here because of it.”
Washington’s marijuana system is at least several months behind Colorado’s, meaning that fully stocked retail shelves probably will not be a reality for consumers until perhaps June.
While Colorado has incorporated the existing medical marijuana system, Washington is starting from scratch, with all production and sale of legal recreational marijuana linked to a new system of licenses, which will not be issued until late February or early March.
“After that, it is up to the industry to get it up and running,” said Mikhail Carpenter, a spokesman for the Washington State Liquor Control Board, which regulates the system and is reviewing almost 5,000 license applications to grow, process or sell marijuana.
Growers can start a crop only after they get a license, Mr. Carpenter said, and retailers can sell only marijuana produced in the state by licensed growers.
What happens next in both states will be watched closely by Arizona, Alaska, California, Oregon and other states flirting with the idea of liberalizing their marijuana laws. Questions still abound. Will drug traffickers take marijuana across state lines, to sell elsewhere? Will recreational marijuana flow from the hands of legal adult consumers to teenagers? Will taxes from marijuana sales match optimistic predictions of a windfall for state budgets? What will happen to the black market for marijuana?
But on Wednesday, enthusiasts like Darren Austin, 44, and his son, Tyler, 21, just embraced the moment. They arrived a few months ago from Georgia and North Carolina, respectively, and decided to stay. The father said marijuana eased his anxiety and helped him quit drinking, and the son said he simply liked smoking it with friends. On Wednesday, they slept in their truck outside a dispensary, to ensure their place in line.
“We wanted to be here,” Darren Austin said. “It’s historic.”
People line up to buy recreational marijuana at the LoDo Wellness Center in Denver.
55% of Colorado voters said yes to legalizing recreational marijuana
Marijuana plants sit under grow lights at the 3D Cannabis Center in Denver.