Will Colorado Have Enough Pot Stores to Meet Demand?

Sales of recreational marijuana begin in three weeks, and lawmakers fear that demand will dwarf supply

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Rick Wilking / Reuters

Growth technician Mike Lottman moves through the marijuana plants in a medical marijuana center in Denver, April 2, 2012.

Call it Black Wednesday. Recreational marijuana goes on sale legally in Colorado on Jan. 1, and Denver officials are worried that the city’s retail shops won’t be anywhere close to meeting demand.

At a city-council meeting Monday, lawmakers in Colorado’s largest city raised questions about licensing delays and the prospect of people queuing up for hours in what have been historically low temperatures.

“If we have 10 stores open … we could have people camping out overnight with cash in their pocket,” said councilman Charlie Brown. “How is the industry, how is the police department going to work together?”

Though more than 100 stores are waiting to have applications approved by the city and state, a process that involves multiple inspections and a public hearing, a small fraction of that number are likely to be open by 8 a.m., Jan. 1, when legal sales for recreational marijuana begin. Employees from the city’s department of excise and licenses estimated that Denver will have around 12 legal retail outlets in operation.

City officials are worried about the ability of those stores to handle the expected crowds, which they said will be supplemented by marijuana tourists arriving on chartered buses. Security is also a concern, as marijuana can only be purchased with cash.

A representative from the medical-marijuana industry said he knows Denver is going to be under enormous scrutiny on New Year’s Day. “It’s very true that the whole world is watching,” said Michael Elliott, who noted that shoppers may be confused when they’re turned away from the vast majority of medical-marijuana dispensaries that aren’t licensed to sell recreational pot. “It’s very intense right now.”

After voters approved a measure to legalize marijuana in November 2012, Colorado spent the next six months developing regulations for consumption — dealing with advertising restrictions, childproof packaging, THC-limits and rules for driving while high. “Clearly we are charting new territory. Other states haven’t been through this process,” Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper said in May. “Recreational marijuana is really a completely new entity.”

Seven months later, lawmakers are still deep in the weeds. “It’s pure cloth,” Denver councilman Albus Brooks tells TIME. “We’re starting from scratch.”

Brooks introduced a measure on Monday that would decriminalize possession for adults ages 18 to 20, which was approved by a special committee focused on marijuana issues. The committee also killed a bill that would have made it illegal to openly smoke pot on private property within 1,000 ft. of any school, with opponents comparing smoking a joint to drinking a beer on a front porch.

Among the measures the council approved Monday was one its president called a “seminal” piece of marijuana legislation outlining procedural nuts and bolts like making it illegal to consume weed on the city’s tourist-heavy 16th Street Mall and banning “pot giveaways” in public parks. Then they moved on to the next item before them: revamping zoning codes to deal with growing marijuana. After being approved by the council, bills must still be signed by the mayor.

“In 22 days, whether you like it or not, the image of our city will change,” Brown said. “And if we need to make adjustments we will. This is not the end. This is, frankly, the beginning.”