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Legal marijuana sales begin amid uncertainty in Colorado

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Marijuana

Workers process marijuana in the trimming room at the Medicine Man dispensary and grow operation in Denver on Dec. 5. Colorado prepares to be the first state in the nation to allow recreational pot sales, starting Wednesday.
(The Associated Press)

DENVER – A gleaming white Apple store of weed is how Andy Williams sees his new Denver marijuana dispensary.

Two floors of pot-growing rooms will have windows showing the shopping public how the mind-altering plant is grown. Shoppers will be able to peruse drying marijuana buds and see pot trimmers at work separating the valuable flowers from the less-prized stems and leaves.

“It’s going to be all white and beautiful,” the 45-year-old ex-industrial engineer explains, excitedly gesturing around what just a few weeks ago was an empty warehouse space that will eventually house 40,000 square feet of cannabis strains.

As Colorado prepares to be the first in the nation to allow recreational pot sales, opening Wednesday, hopeful retailers like Williams are investing their fortunes into the legal recreational pot world – all for a chance to build even bigger ones in a fledgling industry that faces an uncertain future.

Officials in Colorado and Washington, the other state where recreational pot goes on sale in mid-2014, as well as activists, policymakers and governments from around the U.S. and across the world will not be the only ones watching the experiment unfold.

So, too, will the U.S. Department of Justice, which for now is not fighting to shut down the industries.

“We are building an impressive showcase for the world, to show them this is an industry,” Williams said.

Will it be a showcase for a safe, regulated pot industry that generates hundreds of millions of dollars each year and saves money on locking up drug criminals, or one that will prove, once and for all, that the federal government has been right to ban pot since 1937?

Voters in Colorado approved recreational pot in 2012, sold in part on spending less to lock up drug criminals and the potential for new tax dollars to fund state programs.

The votes raised new questions about whether the federal government would sue to block laws flouting federal drug law. That didn’t happen. In August, the DOJ said it wouldn’t sue so long as the states met an eight-point standard that includes keeping pot out of other states and away from children, criminal cartels and federal property.

Colorado law allows adults 21 and older to buy pot at state-sanctioned pot retail stories, and state regulations forbid businesses from advertising in places where children are likely see their pitches.

Only existing medical dispensaries were allowed to apply for licenses. Only a few dozen shops statewide are expected to be open for recreational sales on New Year’s Day.

Legal pot’s potential has spawned businesses beyond retail shops. Marijuana-testing companies have popped up, checking regulated weed for potency and screening for harmful molds. Gardening courses charge hundreds to show people how to grow weed at home.

Tourism companies take curious tourists to glass-blowing shops where elaborate smoking pipes are made.

A Colorado State University study estimates the state will ring up $606 million in sales next year, and the market will grow from 105,000 medical pot users to 643,000 adult users overnight – and that’s not counting tourists.

One of the biggest questions is whether they have built an industry that will not only draw in tens of millions of dollars in revenue but also make a significant dent in the illegal market.

As state officials watch for signs of trouble, they will also have to make sure they don’t run afoul of the DOJ’s conditions.

To stop the drug from being smuggled out of state, regulators in both states are using a radio-frequency surveillance system developed to track pot from the greenhouses to the stores and have set low purchasing limits for non-residents.

Officials concede that there’s little they can do to prevent marijuana from ending up in suitcases on the next flight out.

To prevent the criminal element from getting a foothold, regulators have enacted residency requirements for business owners, banned out-of-state investment and run background checks on every applicant for a license to sell or grow the plant.

Whether the systems are enough is anyone’s guess.

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