Ground Zero in Colorado's Pot Rush

Medically Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD on February 26, 2014
5 min read

The young couple, fresh off a plane from Miami for a Colorado ski vacation, stood marveling at the rows of jars -- enough marijuana to send someone to prison for a long time back home.

Here was pot being sold openly in a store, taxed and regulated, everything from fluffy buds to infused candy to pre-rolled joints.

“It’s so crazy how many different types there are,” says Lindsay, who declined to give her last name. She’s used to buying only one type: whatever her pot connection has.

The couple walked out of the Denver Kush Club with a quarter-ounce of something called “Jack Herer” to enjoy on their trip.  Outside, a long line of people waited for their turn.

So it goes in the “green rush” across parts of Colorado. Voters approved legalization in 2012, and as of Jan. 1 of this year, an industry that had been allowed to sell only to people with a doctor’s prescription could cater to anyone 21 or older.

Denver is ground zero. The Mile High City, along with many tourist towns, has embraced it as a way to reduce the black market, regulate marijuana, and raise tax revenue. Other towns, including the state’s second-largest city, Colorado Springs, have banned recreational pot stores.

“Everybody smokes, from businessmen all the way down to potheads,” says George Springer, the downtown shop’s “budtender,” as the retail clerks are called.

 “Everybody just smokes. I think it’s great. It’s really progressive.”

Things have calmed down since New Year’s Day, when people waited in line for hours to get in on the first legal sales of recreational pot in modern American history. But only slightly: Demand is much greater than the supply at some stores.

 At Denver’s 3D Cannabis Center, owner Toni Fox says she was used to 25 customers a day and about $1,000 in sales when she sold only to medical marijuana patients, who need a license from a state agency to buy pot legally.

On Jan. 1, she had 450 customers and rang up $40,000 in sales. She ran out of pot quickly and had to start closing on weekdays.

“Business is booming,” Fox says. “We’re turning away 100 times the people we could sell to if we had the cannabis.”

State law allows Colorado residents to buy 1 ounce or 28 grams, enough for about 50-60 joints. Non-residents can buy a quarter ounce. But at many stores, people walk out with less.

Fox limits her sales to 3 pounds per a day, which is enough for about 350 customers. Supply is usually sold out by late afternoon.  She has a 14,000-square-foot grow facility and is looking to expand.

The Health Center, another pot shop in Denver’s upscale Capitol Hill neighborhood, used to serve about 20 medical customers a day.

“We’re now seeing 200 people a day,” says manager Samantha Salazar, after they switched to recreational pot. “We have learned to roll with it, expand, get a bigger staff and really just kind of sit back and be excited about being on the front line of the movement, just seeing the excitement from all over the world.”

In fact, according to several marijuana stores, anywhere from 50% to 75% of customers are from out-of-state. Many Colorado residents continue to buy medicinal pot, which must be sold in a separate area in stores that sell both.

The reason is economics. Recreational pot is taxed heavily in Denver, at 21.12%, while medicinal is taxed at 7.62%. Like other stores, The Health Center has had to impose stricter limits because of supply and demand: a quarter-ounce for all recreational customers.

Salazar also says the recreational customers are very informed about different varieties, often buying a sativa, which tends to not be as sleep-inducing; an indica for bedtime; and an edible. Marijuana-infused gummy candies and brownies are the most popular.

“Now the taboos are gone, and they’re ready to have the daytime effect, the nighttime effect, and they want an edible,” Salazar says.

But despite the stereotypes of marijuana smokers, there is no “typical” customer. At the Denver Kush Club, there were white-collar workers in sport coats. College-age guys on vacation. A group of heavily tattooed guys playing a concert next door. Young women. Older men.

Though some customers are surprised at the cost -- $15 to $25 a gram -- Springer, the budtender, says he hears few complaints. One gram is enough for about 1 to 2 joints.

“There are a lot of people who come in and they’re OK with paying it. They just want to be part of the experience,” he says.

It’s too early to know if the new law will lead to any of the problems opponents have feared, such as increases in “high” driving. A recent poll shows that the proliferation of pot shops, and the global headlines, has some in Colorado concerned about the state’s image. A Quinnipiac University poll found 51% of state residents feel legalization has been bad for the state’s image. But 58% continue to support legalization.

Aside from image concerns, there are many unknowns that worry some in Colorado. Will stoned drivers make the roads more dangerous? Will pot become more widely available in schools? Will the wide availability of marijuana lead to more substance abuse?

But legalization advocates also point to positives: taking pot off of the black market so it can be taxed, tested, and regulated. Gov. John Hickenlooper has said tax revenue from recreational stores could surpass $600 million in the coming fiscal year, money that will be pumped into school construction and  education about drug addiction.

Just 10% of those surveyed said they had tried marijuana since Jan. 1.

Denver musician Nathan Ryan is among them. He says he never smoked pot before it became legal, and he now uses it in the recording studio.

“I don’t like to break the law, and now that it’s legal I figured I’d try it. I tried it and it’s amazing,” he says.  He appreciates how regulated the shops are.

“They have it under control really well, security-wise and everything. I never feel like I'm in danger when I go to a dispensary. It’s all pretty safe and it’s like a liquor store with a different product,” he says.

“You know it’s not laced with anything. It’s just the safe way to do it.”