Customers line up with cash at pot shops to get legally high on big day

Alex Lovato smiled broadly as he walked out of the Denver Kush Club with a quarter ounce of history in his hands.

The skinny 21-year-old chef had forgone New Year's Eve drinking to make sure he was first in line to buy recreational cannabis legally as Colorado's pot shops opened their doors to the public for the first time.

Like thousands of others across Denver, Lovato braved freezing temperatures as he waited for doors to open at 8am.

After showing his ID to a gigantic security guard, he stepped inside to face a sweet shop array of narcotic choices, with names such as Sweet Skunk, Lamb's Breath and Amnesia Caviar.


But Lovato knew exactly what he was after and briskly selected a US$100 ($120) bag of Sour Diesel, a potent hybrid strain of marijuana.

"I've been waiting for seven years for this and all I can do is smile. Now I'm going to go home, smoke it out of a bong and play video games."

Lovato's hazy afternoon plans may sound unambitious but they represent what could be the beginning of a new era of American drug policy.

Colorado's cannabis law, which went into force at the stroke of midnight on January 1, is the most liberal in the world. It allows for anyone over the age of 21 to buy the drug over the counter and to legally possess up to an ounce at a time. Under the new regulations Denver, already known as "the Mile High City" for its altitude, has overtaken Amsterdam as the West's most progressive cannabis capital. In the Dutch city the drug remains technically illegal, although tolerated, and laws against possession outside of designated coffee shops are still enforced.

The owners of Denver's 30 legal shops spent the first hours of 2014 engaged in spliff-rolling and weed-bagging while entrepreneurial snack stalls were set up for the morning rush. The Denver Post reported that 17 of the 18 licensed cannabis shops opened for business in Denver. Across the state, another 20 stores opened. Matthew Noah, a "budtender" at Dank Colorado told the Los Angeles Times that by late afternoon he had tallied 192 sales to in-state customers and about 120 to out-of-state customers at his register, one of two at the store.

The snaking lines of buyers were kept under close watch by police. But the officers were less concerned about disorderly pot shoppers and more worried that pickpockets would target them: under US law it is still illegal to use credit cards for drug purchases and so the crowds arrived with pockets full of cash.

Their dollars are the first of what the state estimates will grow to a US$600 million industry. Colorado officials expect to take US$67 million a year in tax revenues and have committed the first US$40 million to fund a new school-building programme. The state is bracing for a mass influx of tourists. Travel companies with names such as Colorado Green Tours have begun shepherding in visitors.

"Colorado is going to prove that regulating marijuana works, and it won't be long before more states follow our lead," said the Marijuana Policy Project, one of the groups that campaigned for the new law. To illustrate the benefits of open access, the group organised for the symbolic first customer to be Sean Azzariti, an Iraq war veteran who uses the drug to sooth post-traumatic stress disorder.

However, opponents of the law warn of a darker side to the gleeful pot buying spree in Denver, warning of a "Big Marijuana" industry that will grow to be as indifferent to the public's health as cigarette and alcohol companies. Patrick Kennedy, the son of Robert Kennedy and a former Congressman and recovering drug addict, said states experimenting with legalisation were "canaries in the coal mine", adding: "We don't have to have other states go down this road and have to learn the same hard lessons."

The federal Government has said that for now it will allow cannabis buying to go ahead in Colorado even though it remains technically illegal under national law.

Denver is a fitting stage for America's first legal recreational drug deals, as it was also the scene of the first federal prosecution for possession of cannabis. The arrest of Samuel Caldwell, an unemployed labourer, in 1937 was the opening shot of a national "war on drugs" that today costs around US$50 billion a year and has put America at the top of the global league table for prison incarceration. Yesterday, 76 years later, four blocks from the flat where Caldwell was arrested, crowds lined up outside the LoDo Wellness shop to buy the drug legally.

Back at the Denver Kush Club, a 55-year-old man named Ray and his son waited in line.

Under his son's careful guidance, Ray selected two different strains and handed over two crisp US$100 notes. He looked vaguely baffled by the drugs in his hand but pleased nonetheless. "I'm excited to celebrate the history of this day. When I smoked pot in the Seventies, it was illegal and now I can just walk in and get it whenever I want."

The police were more concerned with protecting buyers from pickpockets than the fact that they were buying pot. Photo / AP
The police were more concerned with protecting buyers from pickpockets than the fact that they were buying pot. Photo / AP

New cannabis law

You can

• For the first time buy cannabis over the counter for recreational purposes as long you're older than 21. Colorado residents can purchase up to an ounce at a time while foreigners and those from other states of America can buy a quarter ounce.

• Make multiple trips to the pot shop on the same day as long as you stay below the possession limit of one ounce at any one time. If you want to buy an ounce in the morning, smoke it all, and buy another that afternoon, good luck to you.

• Obtain weed in different forms. Shops are selling cannabis buds on their own as well as pre-rolled spliffs and all manner of drugs paraphernalia. Buy cannabis more easily than in Amsterdam, where the drug is still technically illegal (although tolerated) and laws against possession are still sometimes enforced.

• Smoke at hotels, where up to a quarter of rooms are allowed to be designated as cannabis zones. But be careful about smoking on balconies or other places where you can be seen.

You can't

• Go toking on the street. Colorado law states that marijuana cannot be smoked "openly and publicly", meaning no lighting up in restaurants, on the pavement or even in your car. Authorities are encouraging people to smoke at home.

• Pay by card. US banking laws prohibit the use of credit cards for buying drugs and so cannabis can only be purchased with cash.

• Be sure where the law goes next. While cannabis possession is legal under Colorado law it is still technically breaking US federal law. For now the federal Government is letting the Colorado experiment go ahead, but will be watching closely to see how it works out.

• Buy weed at all hours. Shops cannot open before 8am and must shut before midnight.

• Take the marijuana you buy outside Colorado, bring it on a plane, or post it home to yourself.