Colorado dived headlong into the world of licensed and regulated recreational pot sales Wednesday with advocates of legal marijuana yelling the “water is fine” to onlookers around the world.
The first day of sales went off as planned with long lines of buyers, intense international media attention and precise regulation that tracks the psychoactive drug from plant to sale.
“Today, Colorado, we shift marijuana from the underground and into the regulated market where we can provide advances for our communities,” said Betty Aldworth, deputy director of the National Cannabis Industry. “Marijuana does not have to be a burden on our communities, it doesn’t have to be a burden on our legal justice system, and it doesn’t have to be a burden on our economies.”
She said the industry expects to generate $400 million in sales in 2014.
Across the state, 136 retail marijuana stores were licensed by the Colorado Department of Revenue to sell marijuana, but those stores also had to get local licenses before opening their doors.
Colorado Springs and El Paso County both prohibited recreational sales in the jurisdictions. But at least two stores were open in Pueblo County and about 18 in Denver.
Customers, bundled in winter garb, lined the outside of Marisol Therapeutics Health and Wellness Center in Pueblo West as early as 7 a.m. Staff opened the store at 8 a.m., slowly letting customers enter as a security guard used a wand to scan bodies. By 9:30 a.m., the line had grown to nearly 100.
Store owner Michael Stetler said he had plenty of pot in stock to assuage the crowd’s craving.
“I won’t sell out today,” he said.
For Stetler, Wednesday was a long time coming. He’s advocated for the legalization of recreational pot for years, he said.
“I’ve been fighting for this for a long time,” he said. “I just think it’s right to let people have the freedom of choice.”
Among the first customers was Dylan Aragon, a 22-year-old civil engineering student at Pueblo Community College.
He paid $20 for a sativa strain of New York Sour Diesel that he said would give him the energy needed to finish moving into his apartment and to register for spring semester classes.
Aragon maintains that smoking weed daily is a healthy habit that promotes introspective thinking if done responsibly.
“It’s like eating your vegetables every day, which I don’t. It makes you a better you for the day,” he said, choking back tears while clutching a purple pill bottle of buds.
“I’m going to remember this day forever.”
Dana Sutton, 22, and Daniel Shea, 27, spent almost $250 on weed after waiting 90 minutes in line at Medicine Man, a long-time medical marijuana dispensary in Denver that converted 60 percent of its product to recreational sales for the New Year’s Day opening.
“Seeing this, I’m kind of thinking right now I should have done more,” said Andy Williams, the owner of Medicine Man, indicating a long line of patrons snaking out of the building.
Williams said a 20,000-square-foot new grow facility is under construction that will be able to produce about 2,500 pounds of pot annually.
Under Amendment 64 — the ballot initiative that voters approved in 2012 legalizing marijuana — people age 21 and older legally can possess up to an ounce of pot. And last legislative session, lawmakers painstakingly hammered out the details of marijuana regulation that covered everything from packaging and labeling to background checks for business owners and a complex licensing process.
Those new laws set the limit any individual can buy at a time to an ounce for those with Colorado driver’s licenses and a quarter ounce for out-of-staters.
Sutton and Shea handed over their Texas IDs at Medicine Man and began chatting with their helpful cashier about different strains available.
“I want a happy high, for doing stuff,” Sutton said.
Shea eventually settled on an eighth of an ounce of Golden Goat, a sativa that promises a euphoric high full of energy, and an eighth of Ghost Train, an indica strain that is more of a muscle relaxer. His sale was $128.49, and although the store accepts debit cards, he opted to pay cash.
“I don’t want that showing up on my record,” he said.
Sutton opted for an eighth of Blue Dream, a hybrid that promised her a “creative high.” She also bought three Cheeba Chews, a tootsie roll-like edible that promises a high that will last a couple of hours.
The couple were headed to Vail after the purchase to spend the day skiing. They just happened to be in Colorado for the opening day of sales and decided to take advantage on their vacation.
Although pot is legal in Colorado, it remains a federal crime.
But under President Barack Obama’s administration, a policy has been established that the federal government won’t interfere with sales in Colorado and Washington — the only states that have legalized recreational sales — as long as the drugs aren’t involved in other crimes, disruptive offenses or dispersed into other states.
Mason Tvert, co-director of the Amendment 66 campaign, said shortly after the first retail sales that no one cares more about following the rules and ensuring an orderly and regulated process than the store owners who have risked everything to venture into pot sales.
“The experiment was marijuana prohibition, and that experiment dramatically failed,” Tvert said. “Colorado is actually adopting a far more sensible approach in which we are going to regulate and tax the cultivation and sale of marijuana for adults.”
He said many states are primed to follow the path of Colorado and Washington. He said voters in Alaska likely will see the issue on a ballot in 2014 and Arizona advocates are aiming for the 2016 ballots. The outcome in Colorado in the coming years will have a direct influence on the outcomes in other states.
For some who traveled from out of state to be among the first to buy legal weed, it was about freedom.
Jacob Elliott, 31, said he’s lived for years in fear of getting busted with pot.
“I’m always looking over my shoulder,” he said.
The resident of Leesburg, Va., said he plans on buying the full limit of pot every day until he leaves for home next week.
“I just want to say thank you to Colorado voters,” Elliott said.
Contact Megan Schrader