Colorado New Year’s expected to bring historic marijuana sales

Workers process marijuana in the trimming room at the Medicine Man dispensary and grow operation in northeast Denver. Colorado prepares to be the first in the nation to allow recreational pot sales, opening Jan. 1. Enlargephoto

The Associated Press

Workers process marijuana in the trimming room at the Medicine Man dispensary and grow operation in northeast Denver. Colorado prepares to be the first in the nation to allow recreational pot sales, opening Jan. 1.

DENVER – Early in the morning on New Year’s Day, someone in Colorado – probably in Denver – will purchase the world’s first government-approved, over-the-counter recreational marijuana.

Not even in Amsterdam, where people have been buying pot in “coffee shops” for three decades, is the retail sale of marijuana fully legal and licensed.

Washington State and Uruguay also have legalized marijuana, but their first retail sales will not happen until later next year.

“It’ll actually be fully legal in Colorado, at least under state law, whereas in the Netherlands, it’s just tolerated,” said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, which advocates for marijuana legalization.

Of course, people have been buying pot legally in Colorado and other states for more than a decade, thanks to medical marijuana laws. And a number of cities, states and countries have decriminalized the possession of marijuana. But Colorado will be the first to allow retail sales without a prescription, making it nearly as easy to pick up a joint as a bottle of wine.

It won’t be a celebratory day for Diana Carlson, a founder of Smart Colorado, a group that argues against liberalization of drug laws.

Opponents who attended public hearings in Denver haven’t been able to prevent the city from allowing stores to open, she said.

“Legalization does not need to mean full-blown commercialization,” Carlson said.

She worries that cities like Denver are rushing to license stores before protections are in place to keep pot away from children. A medical study at Children’s Hospital Colorado found that after the state started to allow medical marijuana sales, more kids went to the emergency room after unwittingly eating pot-infused cookies and brownies.

Carlson is also worried about highly potent marijuana concentrates.

“I don’t think marijuana concentrates are legal anywhere in the world besides Colorado,” Carlson said.

Anyone in Southwest Colorado who wants to be first in line for legal pot will have to take a long drive. Telluride is the only town in the area that might have stores open on New Year’s Day, and even that is not certain.

“It’s still a work in progress,” Telluride Town Manager Greg Clifton said.

Three or four businesses are seeking licenses in Telluride, he said.

The Durango City Council adopted a moratorium on recreational pot sales until June 30. La Plata County commissioners put in a moratorium until the end of 2014.

Only existing medical marijuana dispensaries were allowed to apply to for the first round of recreational pot licenses. Businesses need approval from both the state and their local government before they can open.

As of Dec. 19, the state was examining 425 applications, including 153 for stores, 211 for cultivation facilities, 34 for marijuana-infused product manufacturing and three testing labs, said Jack Finlaw, Gov. John Hickenlooper’s chief legal counsel. Finlaw did not know how many businesses would be open on New Year’s Day.

Marijuana activists expect between five and 12 stores to be open in Denver on New Year’s Day.

Anyone in Southwest Colorado who wants to be first in line for legal pot will have to take a long drive. Telluride is the only town in the region that has issued licenses for stores to open on New Year’s Day.

The town issued three conditional licenses at a hearing Monday, and after a final inspection, Town Attorney Kevin Geiger expects the stores to be ready to go.

All three are currently operating a medical marijuana dispensaries, and Telluride Town Manager Greg Clifton doesn’t expect many changes after Jan. 1.

joeh@cortezjournal.com