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 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 says, 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 such as 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.
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Officials in Colorado and Washington, where recreational pot goes on sale later in the year, as well as activists, policymakers and governments from around the United States and across the world will not be the only ones watching the experiment unfold.
So, too, will the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), 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 says, as the scent of marijuana competes with the smell of sawdust and wet paint in the cavernous store where he hopes to sell pot just as he would a bottle of wine.
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 and Washington 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. Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper famously warned residents not to “break out the Cheetos or Goldfish too quickly,” and activists predicated a legal showdown.
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 stores, and state regulations forbid businesses from advertising in places where children are likely to see their pitches.
Only existing medical dispensaries were allowed to apply for licenses, an effort to prevent another proliferation of pot shops. 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 glassblowing shops where elaborate smoking pipes are made. One has clients willing to spend up to $10,000 for a week in a luxury ski resort and a private concierge to show them the state’s pot industry.
Dixie Elixirs & Edibles, maker of pot-infused foods and drinks, is making new labels for the recreational market and expanding production on everything from crispy rice treats to fruit lozenges.
“The genie is out of the bottle,” says company President Tripp Keber. “I think it’s going to be an exciting time over the next 24 to 48 months.”
It’s easy to see why the industry is attracting so many people. 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.
Toni Fox, owner of 3D Cannabis Center in Denver, anticipates shoppers camping overnight to await her first-day 8 a.m. opening. She’s thinking of using airport-security-line-style ropes to corral shoppers, and suspects she’s going to run out of pot.
A longtime marijuana-legalization advocate, she knows it’s a crucial moment for the movement.
“We have to show that this can work,” she says. “It has to.”
For now, all the focus is on 2014. In Colorado, there will be more than a few joints lit up on New Year’s Eve. Pot fans plan to don 1920s-era attire for a “Prohibition Is Over!” party and take turns using concentrated pot inside the “dab bus.”
Williams says he’s done everything he can, including hiring seven additional staffers to handle customers. All he has to do is open the doors.
“Are we ready to go? Yes,” he says. “What’s going to happen? I don’t know.”