Pubdate: Sat, 11 Jan 2014
Source: USA Today (US)
Copyright: 2014 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc
Author: Trevor Hughes
Page: 1T


Just a Week into the State's Legal-Marijuana Experiment, Giddiness
Meets Hand-Wringing

DENVER - David Strong leans over to a stranger waiting in line next to
him and confesses he's been buying pot in grocery store parking lots
for years.

"I had this one guy, first time, great stuff. Second time, great.
Third, great. Fourth? Terrible," says Strong, 59. "When you're buying
out on the street, you have no idea what you're getting."

That changed a few minutes later for the semi-retired Strong, who this
week became one of the first Americans to buy marijuana from a
state-licensed store in Denver. Instead of meeting a dealer in a
parking lot for an illegal transaction, Strong bought pot from the
Medicine Man retail shop.

Strong is one of thousands of people partaking in a Colorado's
green-tinged gold rush. For nervous college students and aging
hippies, the doors swung open Jan. 1 on a grand experiment in the
Centennial State, where residents 21 and older can buy up to an ounce
of marijuana at a time. The state has about 130 retail shops, with
names such as Cannabis King, Ganja Gourmet and Purple Dragon.

Since Jan. 1, the stores have seen heavy demand, much of which is from
out-of-state customers, says Medicine Man marijuana store co-founder
Andy Williams, 45. An industrial engineer by training, Williams teamed
with his brother to open the 20,000-square-foot store in East Denver.
High demand already has them making plans to double in size and become
the "Costco of marijuana." Customers waiting in the lines stretching
around the block cheered fellow buyers when they came out during the
store's opening Jan. 1.

"It was Independence Day for marijuana," Williams says. "People have
this great sense of relief that they no longer have to break the law
to do what they love."

The legal sales have spurred heavy demand, and some smaller stores
have reported either rationing sales or running out entirely. Prices
have changed accordingly: Williams said the retail price of pot leaped
from about $2,500 a pound to $6,000 a pound within days of Jan. 1.

State and local taxes add up to about 20%-25% of the purchase price,
depending on location, and vendors are allowed to charge whatever the
market will bear. Customers from across the country have flocked to
the Denver area, where most of the stores are located. Some smaller
communities have banned sales, while others are developing their
permitting processes.


The stores were authorized under the voter-approved Amendment 64,
which requires the state to regulate marijuana like alcohol. Though
growing and possession were legalized at the end of 2013, the
amendment gave state regulators until Jan. 1 to develop a retail sales

"It's generally been uneventful, with the exception that it's
historic," says Mason Tvert of the Marijuana Policy Project, an early
backer of Colorado legalization. "It's obviously a very momentous
occasion, but ultimately, it's just a bunch of adults standing in line
to buy a legal product."

This week, many customers shopping at Medicine Man declined to give
their names, an indicator that even though it's legal to buy
marijuana, a taint remains. Buying marijuana is illegal on the federal
level, although federal prosecutors have indicated they'll leave
Colorado alone if it follows a set of eight specific guidelines.

Those guidelines are ultimately responsible for a series of state
regulations requiring security cameras, armed guards and extensive
plant and money tracking systems intended to keep marijuana out of the
hands of kids and the profits out of the hands of gangs, drug cartels
and criminals.

Colorado's legalization has spurred a boom in what's known as edibles
- - brownies, cookies or candy spiked with marijuana extracts. It's the
easy availability of those kid-friendly munchies that has Denver mom
Gina Carbone worried. Carbone, a former PTO president with four kids,
says she didn't object when voters decriminalized marijuana.

Carbone volunteers with the group SAFE Colorado, which has been
lobbying to tighten restrictions on retail shops and ready-to-eat
products. She said she's talked to store owners who inject or spritz
popcorn with marijuana concentrate. That's scary, she said, because
recent studies indicate marijuana can impair the brain's development
in adolescents.

"This is a really tough thing for parents, because of the message that
it's sending to kids - that getting stoned is an acceptable
recreational activity," she says. "We feel like our kids are an


A study published last year in the journal JAMA Pediatrics said there
had been a spike in the number of young children being treated for
accidentally eating pot, or marijuana-laced cookies, candies, brownies
and beverages at Children's Hospital Colorado. The study found that in
the two years after marijuana laws were modified in fall 2009, 14 kids
were treated for accidental ingestion. In the four years before the
change, the study said, no kids had been hospitalized for accidental

At Medicine Man, buyers say they appreciate the security and
reliability that comes from buying pot from a store, even though they
have to pay taxes. At the store, an armed guard checks IDs and waves
buyers to the counter, where "bud tenders" offer guidance on what kind
of high the buyer is looking for and recommend different strains for
their pain-relieving, appetite-simulating or euphoric properties.

Behind another set of locked doors, the store's approximately 50
employees busily tend to thousands of pot plants - fertilizing,
harvesting, drying, weighing and packaging. The smell of marijuana
hangs heavy over the entire neighborhood, and dozens of prepackaged
baggies of pot hang from hooks in the storefront, allowing customers
to select from about 30 different strains.

A study estimated the state's $600 million legal marijuana market
would generate $130 million in new taxes, although enforcement and
regulation would require a significant amount of that new revenue. The
study by Colorado State University also estimated that Coloradans will
each consume about 3.5 ounces of pot annually.

The study concluded its estimates could be wrong as marijuana tourists
initially flock to the legal market, then lose interest as the "wow
factor" diminishes. Some companies are rushing to cash in on the legal
sales. Spirit Airlines recently offered customers discounted flights
to Denver with the tagline of "get Mile High," and some tour operators
offer marijuana tours for out-of-state residents seeking legal highs.

Buyer Jessica Girard, 21, bought two pre-rolled joints from the store,
in part just because she could, she says. A Denver native, Girard says
her friends are split on having legal marijuana. She bought the joints
because she has back problems but hasn't gone through the process of
getting her medical card.

"I trust that my money is going to get me something that will help
me," she says. "You know exactly what you're getting. It's right in
your face."

Strong says he doesn't mind anyone knowing he's used pot since at
least 1972 and doesn't mind paying the extra taxes if it means a more
consistent product: "If they legalized this stuff back in '68, the
government would be out of debt right now."


State officials anticipate tax revenue from legal marijuana sales will
generate potentially hundreds of millions of tax dollars over the
coming years. Taxes on a $20 1-gram purchase, for instance, add $7.25
to the total cost.

Some marijuana stores accept credit and debit cards, although many
buyers appear more comfortable keeping the transactions as cash only.
Buyers need only prove they are of legal age, and no records are kept
of who buys what.

The Colorado State Patrol hasn't seen a significant increase in stoned
drivers, and it has no plans to change the way it patrols for them,
said spokesman Trooper Josh Lewis. He says troopers use standard
techniques, such as the one-legged stand, to test whether drivers are
too impaired to be behind the wheel.

"Driving under the influence remains illegal, no matter the
substance," he says.

In its first few days of operation, Williams says, his store served
more than 1,200 customers and would have accommodated more if city
rules didn't require him to close by 7 p.m. Knowing the world's eyes
are on Colorado and its experiment, Williams challenged skeptics to
visit and see for themselves.

"Reefer madness isn't real," he says. "Adults don't just go crazy
because they can all of a sudden buy marijuana in a store."
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