Colorado rings in New Year with world’s first recreational pot sales

Greg Campbell Contributor

Hundreds of people — if not thousands by the end of the day — braved cold temperatures and intermittent snowfall on New Year’s Day to make history in Colorado by legally buying recreational marijuana.

Lines formed well before dawn at most pot shops, but many said that it was worth the lack of sleep and discomfort to be among the first in the world to buy marijuana in state-sanctioned stores. Across the state, 37 shops opened for business and dozens more are expected to open in the coming weeks and months.

The trip was more arduous for some customers than for others. Neal Pepper and two friends drove through the night from Arkansas, a 12-hour trip, to be among the first in line at The Medicine Man dispensary in east Denver.

“It just felt like I was coming out of the closet,” Pepper said after buying a quarter ounce of marijuana, the legal limit per transaction for non-Colorado residents; residents can purchase up to an ounce. “I just asked the guy to suggest something. I don’t even know what I’ve got.”

At least half of those in the long line at The Medicine Man were from outside Colorado, said Benjamin Little, spokesman for Blue Line Protection Group, a private security company whose armed guards checked IDs. He said customers had come from as far as New Hampshire.

“It’s incredible,” he said. “It’s a heck of a vacation.”

While that may be, the Denver Convention and Visitors Bureau isn’t going out of its way to promote the historical new industry, said spokesman Rich Grant.

“Our main concern is that people know the law,” he said, noting that it’s too early to tell, from a marketing perspective, whether being the pot capital of the world will help or hurt Colorado’s reputation.

Store owners seem to be doing their part to ensure that everyone is informed about what is and isn’t allowed. At 3-D Dispensary, staff members handed out informational brochures to those in line and another flyer upon making a purchase.

The first sales also came with a word of caution from 3-D owner Toni Fox, who advised out-of-town tokers to take it slow.

“Our cannabis in Colorado is very potent and we want you to enjoy it and not overindulge,” she said.

Although Gov. John Hickenlooper and Denver Mayor Michael Hancock avoided the spotlight Wednesday — both campaigned against Amendment 64, the legalization measure passed by voters in 2012 — other state officials were on hand to witness the beginning of this first-of-its-kind industry.

“Considering the ambitious timeline we’ve had, I’m really impressed,” said state Rep. Jonathan Singer, one of only two state legislators to publicly endorse Amendment 64 before it was passed. “It’s nothing like the launch of Obamacare.”

Singer credited the smooth opening to business owners, many of whom helped craft regulations and worked to pass a taxing scheme for recreational marijuana.

“The industry showed up to the table ready to work,” Singer said. “They put their money, and their effort, where their mouth is.”

Singer said there are still tweaks to be worked out of the system, the most obvious of which are federal laws that prohibit banks from working with marijuana sellers. Therefore, the new industry — which is expected to generate approximately $400 million in annual sales — is strictly cash-only.

Singer said state legislators will continue to pressure Congress to amend banking regulations so that customers can use credit and debit cards and marijuana shops can open business accounts. Another option is to open a state-chartered bank.

“If the feds can’t do it, we know Colorado can,” he said.

Brian Vicente, one of the co-authors of Amendment 64 called the grand openings “a watershed moment” in U.S. history and said Colorado will serve as a model for other states preparing to legalize marijuana.

“Colorado is charting a path for the rest of the country to follow,” he said.

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