Rick Wilking/Reuters
People wait in line to be among the first to legally buy recreational marijuana at the Botana Care store in Northglenn, Colo., last Wednesday.

Legal marijuana in Colorado: Was rollout a success?

Pot shops could sell legal marijuana for recreational use in Colorado as of Jan. 1. After one week, the rollout has been as smooth as could have been expected.

Nearly a week into Colorado’s unprecedented foray into marijuana legalization, it’s all going smoothly.

Possessing and using recreational marijuana has actually been legal for a full year in both Washington and Colorado. But Jan. 1 marked the first time that the drug could be sold commercially to nonmedical customers. At least a couple dozen stores are already operating around the state, legally selling marijuana for recreational use to adults.

The biggest concerns of critics – whether the new policy will increase teen use or lead to marijuana trickling out of the state, for instance – may take months or years to assess. But so far, the biggest snarls have revolved around shortage of supply and long lines at the handful of dispensaries. Since Colorado, for now, requires marijuana businesses to grow most of the cannabis they sell, supply and demand could be tricky, especially in these early months.

Tim Cullen, co-owner of Evergreen Apothecary in Denver, says his shop has had about 400 customers a day since Jan.1 – more than four times the 70 or 75 medical customers they were serving before that. When the shop opens at 8 a.m., there’s usually a line at least an hour long; at 5 p.m., the store hands out 80 numbers to the people remaining in line and sends everyone else home.

To keep supplies from running out, the store has limited customers to buying a quarter of an ounce for now, but the current pace isn’t sustainable, even with the added help of five new employees, Mr. Cullen says. On Sunday, he closed at 3 p.m. “just to give our employees a little time to reintroduce themselves to their families.”

“We will not be able to do this forever,” he adds. “I’m hoping more stores open up here soon, which I’d never imagine I’d say. We need more stores to open up to even this out a little bit.”

The industry expected such shortfalls might exist, but it has also been advocating a slow ramp-up to make sure everything goes as smoothly as possible.

“It’s frustrating that we’re dealing with the shortage and things aren’t moving faster, but this is very much in line with what we’d been calling for, which is this slow controlled growth,” says Mike Elliott, executive director of the Medical Marijuana Industry Group, which represents marijuana businesses in the state. “It’s going slower than a lot of people would like, but I think it shows we’re on a strong path forward.”

The state has no official list of how many businesses are open. Some 136 stores have been issued state licenses to sell recreational marijuana, with another 22 applications pending, according to Julie Postlethwait, a spokeswoman for the Marijuana Enforcement Division at the state’s Department of Revenue. But many of those stores don’t have local permits yet and may not for several months.

Mr. Elliott estimates that about 40 businesses in the state, mostly in the Denver area, are currently selling recreational marijuana to adults. In the next few months, he expects that may grow to about 200, with particularly big bumps once towns like Boulder and Aurora start issuing licenses.

Figuring out the ultimate demand will take time. Among other things, marijuana tourism is still a big unknown. The rollout, however, has quieted concerns that there might be tensions between the marijuana industry and the Denver Police Department.

“We’ve been in open communication with them and working with them, and realize we have the same priorities – to keep businesses secure and keep customers safe,” says Elliott. “This sort of partnership has never happened before, where we have such common ground between the marijuana industry and the law-enforcement community.”

The police department – in response to a request from the marijuana industry – has stepped up patrols for the first few days of legalization. Marijuana businesses, in turn, have increased their public education efforts, reminding people they need to return home before trying out their new purchase and to avoid driving while impaired.

Since Jan. 1, the Denver police have written just four marijuana citations, and there have been no major incidents, says Sonny Jackson, a spokesman for the Denver Police Department. “We’ve had a relatively good relationship with the industry, and with the people purchasing the product as well,” Mr. Jackson says. “The first day went relatively smooth, which was our biggest concern, and hopefully people will continue that attitude going forward.”

Elliott credits the messaging his industry has hammered home, telling customers that “the whole world is watching, we’re at cutting edge of this historic movement, and we’ve got to be better than anyone thought we can be and extremely responsible.”

The apparent success of the rollout – in a fairly short time frame, despite many people in government who were not in favor of it – is noteworthy.

“When people say government doesn’t work, here’s a situation where there was this mandate to get this done and it happened. [And it’s been done] nowhere else in world,” says Sam Kamin, a University of Denver law professor who served on Colorado’s marijuana task force, which made recommendations about the regulation of the new industry last year. “There haven’t been a lot of lawsuits and foot dragging. There were people who disagreed about Amendment 64 [the ballot initiative that legalized marijuana] but worked together and made it happen.”

Washington, the other state that legalized recreational marijuana in the 2012 elections, will have its own businesses open later this year and is doing many things differently from Colorado. Among other things, its taxes are different, the state prohibits “home grows” (Colorado allows individuals to grow up to six plants for personal use), and it requires the growing, processing, and selling sides of the business to be separate, whereas Colorado requires them to be integrated.

Professor Kamin and others say they expect other states considering legalization to watch both states closely. But for now, many in the industry are simply relieved at how things have gone here.

Says Elliott: “We have pretty successfully shown that all the doomsday scenarios, and all the predictions that have been made about this, are just not based in reality.”

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