High expectations as Colorado and Washington welcome legal marijuana shops
Cannabis growers, tax men and tourism operators delighted at prospect of extra cash as Colorado, Washington welcome legal marijuana shops
Marijuana users in Colorado and Washington are counting down the hours before the states become the first to legalise recreational pot shops on January 1.
Blazing a trail they hope will be followed in other parts of the United States, cannabis growers and others are also rubbing their hands, while tax collectors are eyeing the extra revenue.
Enterprising companies are even offering marijuana tours to cash in on tourists expected to be attracted to a Netherlands-style pot culture, including in Colorado's famous ski resorts.
"Just the novelty alone is bringing people from everywhere," said Adam Raleigh, of cannabis supplier Telluride Bud Co. "I have people driving in from Texas, Arizona, Utah to be a part of history."
Medical marijuana is already legal and regulated in 19 US states, and has been allowed in some cases for the past 20 years. In most of the states, private consumption of cannabis is not classified as a crime. But Colorado and Washington are creating a recreational market in which local authorities will oversee growing, distribution and marketing - all of it legal - for people to get high just for the fun of it.
The market is huge: from US$1.4 billion in medical marijuana this year it will grow to US$2.34 billion next year with recreational marijuana added in Colorado and Washington, according to Arcview Market Research, which tracks and publishes cannabis industry data.
Both states legalised recreational consumption of marijuana in referendums last year, but rules coming into force on Wednesday allow cannabis shops.
In Colorado, famous for its Rocky Mountain ski resorts, officials last week issued 348 retail marijuana licences, including for small shops which from Wednesday can sell up to 28 grams of pot to people over 21.
Washington state authorities have received applications for 3,746 marijuana business licences, including 867 retail licences, according to The Seattle Times newspaper, which urged caution in an editorial.
"Legalisation of marijuana is a seismic change in drug-control policy, perhaps the biggest since the end of alcohol prohibition. Supporters and sceptics need to take a deep breath," it said.
Colorado's branch of the National Organisation for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) said everyone would benefit. "It will mean jobs, tax revenue for the state and local jurisdictions, increased tourism, and a developing progressive new industry in Colorado," NORML lawyer Rachel Gillette said. "It will also have an impact in that marijuana sales will be brought out of the shadows and the black market."
Michael Elliott, head of the Medical Marijuana Industry Group, noted that Colorado had licensed medical marijuana businesses since 2010, but said the influx of tourists for recreational use of pot could lead to shortages.
"It's tough to know whether supply will meet demand, mainly because it's tough to know the impact of tourism on this new market," he said.
Telluride Bud Co's Raleigh compared decriminalising pot shops to legalising same-sex weddings, which are now allowed in more than a third of US states.
"Give it six months, and when other states see that the sky didn't fall and the revenue we are producing, I believe this will spread just like gay marriage," he said. "You just can't stop the will of the people."