Nation

Colorado begins recreational pot experiment with first sales

Laws and LegislationCrime, Law and JusticeJustice SystemLocal GovernmentAmsterdam (Netherlands)U.S. Department of Justice

DENVER — At 7:59 a.m. on Wednesday, a harried Jay Griffin shouted to the crowd pressed against the roped-off lines leading to his storefront counter: "One minute until we make history!"

Sixty seconds later, he and a handful of other pot shop retailers opened a new and closely watched chapter in the national debate over legalizing marijuana as Colorado became the first state in the country where small amounts of recreational pot can be legally sold in specialty stores.

Steve "Heyduke" Judish, a 58-year-old retired federal worker from Denver who prefers weed to booze, was the first customer of the day at Dank Colorado, a tiny shop tucked in a Denver industrial district. By opening time there were about 40 customers from as far away as Iowa and Minnesota who had waited for hours.

After a quiet start in the morning, lines swelled in the late afternoon under the close watch of security guards. City officials commented that even though lines at some stores snaked into the streets in chilly weather, the crowds were remarkably patient and, yes, mellow — a mix of young and old, mostly men.

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Judish peeled off $30 and walked away with one-eighth of an ounce of Larry OG, a potent strain of marijuana that connoisseurs like for its euphoric rush. He had put his name on a list to be first in line 14 hours earlier.

But really, he has been waiting 40 years for this legal buy.

"It's cool to be part of history," he said with a grin.

Not far behind him was Doug Little, 62, who had arrived in the predawn darkness. He too felt the baby boomer tug of history. "I smoked my first joint in 1969 in a dorm room at Michigan State. I never thought I would see this in my lifetime."

"Hi, buddy. You got your ID?" Griffin asked as Little approached the counter.

"I'd like a quarter Trainwreck and a quarter Sour Diesel," Little said, rattling off the strains like a sommelier at a wine tasting as he ordered by the partial ounce.

"The names are crazy," he admitted. His tab came to $169.57.

In November 2012, Colorado voters approved Amendment 64, making it legal for residents over 21 to buy small amounts of recreational marijuana. Washington state passed a similar measure, but officials there say they won't be ready to open stores until later this year.

Despite the excitement in retail shops, there were critics like Kevin Sabet, co-founder of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, or SAM, who called Wednesday's landmark event "the beginning of the era of Big Marijuana not unlike what we saw in this country with Big Tobacco."

"This is an industry that makes money off addiction," he said, adding that he was concerned that children would be targeted and swayed into thinking marijuana is harmless.

Sabet vowed to continue the fight against legalization in other states, saying, "We don't think legalization is inevitable."

Internationally, Uruguay has approved state-sanctioned marijuana sales, which are also not yet up and running. The Netherlands has long had an informal decriminalization policy, and patrons can buy marijuana products in Amsterdam coffee shops.

Still, Colorado is thought to be the first jurisdiction in the world where marijuana is openly sold in specialty pot shops and tracked by the government from seed to store.

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The Colorado venture is being closely watched in other states considering loosening their pot laws, including California, Oregon and Arizona.

Colorado residents can buy up to an ounce of marijuana at a time. Residents with an out-of-state ID can buy up to one-quarter ounce. Buyers are not restricted from shopping from store to store — although under state law they are only allowed to possess up to 1 ounce at a time.

Possession of more than 1 but less than 8 ounces of marijuana is a misdemeanor and carries fines up to $5,000, plus up to 18 months in jail. It is a felony to possess more than 8 ounces, and fines can be as high as $100,000, with up to three years in prison.

The list of don'ts is lengthy under state and local laws:

Smoking inside a public building is a violation of the Colorado Clean Indoor Air Act, which also prohibits marijuana clubs or salons similar to cigar bars. Smoking in public outdoor spaces — including parks, ski resorts, national parks and forests — is also off-limits. Smoking at a private residence is allowed, but for renters it can be up to the landlord.

Driving while impaired is prohibited, as is transporting marijuana over state lines by car or plane.

Griffin Day, 23, and Ricky Webb, 24, drove to Colorado from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, for the event. Day dropped $70, Webb $168, each buying a smorgasbord of marijuana and marijuana-laced products.

"This is the Amsterdam trip we couldn't take," Webb said.

A few miles away, at a shop called 3D Cannabis Center, a small army of television news trucks jammed the parking lot. A food tent selling doughnuts, tacos and funnel cakes added to the party atmosphere.

Jacob Elliott, 31, who had flown to Denver from Virginia on Tuesday, arrived at 4:30 a.m. Tyler Williams and Brandon Harris, both 24, drove 20 hours straight from Ohio and had been waiting since 2:30 a.m. Harris joked that he may never return to his home state.

Toni Fox, the 42-year-old owner of 3D, was allowed to transfer some product from her medical marijuana dispensary and has braced for huge crowds. Instead, she likened it to Black Friday, without manic, pushy shoppers. "Green Wednesday," she called it.

Late last month, 136 retail marijuana licenses in Colorado were issued. But not all outlets were ready for business Wednesday. Only about eight opened in Denver. The Denver Post reported 37 stores were open statewide. The complicated logistics of stocking shelves and providing security may have delayed others.

Proponents have long called it a financial windfall to the state, since retail pot comes with a hefty 25% state tax on top of the usual sales tax of 2.9%. By some estimates it is expected to generate $67 million a year, with $27.5 million designated for schools, officials said.

Though marijuana is still illegal on the federal level — which typically trumps state law — the Justice Department issued a memo in August saying that federal authorities should not pursue prosecution for recreational pot in Colorado and Washington.

national@latimes.com

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Laws and LegislationCrime, Law and JusticeJustice SystemLocal GovernmentAmsterdam (Netherlands)U.S. Department of Justice
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