Washington state's first recreational pot shops open for business Tuesday. Voters there legalized the sale of marijuana for non-medical use back in 2012. The Northwest News Network's Austin Jenkins reports on the lengthy process from that vote to the day's store openings.
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In Washington state, you can now walk into a licensed store and buy marijuana legally. The first retail locations for recreational pot open today. That's more than a year and a half after Washington voters approved a ballot measure legalizing marijuana. Excited customers camped out overnight to be among the first to purchase recreational pot. But Washington state officials are warning of marijuana shortages and high prices to start. Austin Jenkins of the Northwest News Network has the story from Olympia.
AUSTIN JENKINS: From Seattle to Bellingham to the farming community of Prosser, Washington, a history-making day.
JENKINS: Applause outside a double-wide-trailer-turned-marijuana-store called Altitude in Prosser. The first customer in the door shortly after eight a.m. was Shirley Gray. She was paired with a cannabis coach named Taunya Moore.
TAUNYA MOORE: I am really glad you're here being our first customer. Welcome.
SHIRLEY GRAY: Thank you.
MOORE: What is it we can help you with today?
GRAY: I'm really into some sativas.
JENKINS: Because of limited supply, Gray could only purchase a gram. She walked out the door a short time later with a strain called Gremlin. Total cost with taxes - a pricey 30 bucks. But she left happy.
MOORE: Thank you.
GRAY: Thank you very much.
JENKINS: Outside the store, 28-year-old Jacob Nichols was waiting patiently for his turn. He says, he's willing to pay a premium to participate in the legal, regulated market.
JACOB NICHOLS: Sure, you can buy it for less on the black market right now, but I just want to be able to put the money into the state and the community instead of other people's pockets.
JENKINS: This moment in Washington state has been nearly two years in the making. It was November 2012 when voters here approved Ballot Initiative 502, legalizing recreational marijuana. The initiative handed responsibility for creating from scratch the new marijuana marketplace to Washington's Liquor Control Board. Randy Simmons is deputy director.
RANDY SIMMONS: I think we started celebrating last week when we knew that these licenses were going to roll out.
JENKINS: It's been a grueling 19 months for Simmons and his staff. Turns out writing the rules for a legal marijuana industry is no easy task. It included everything from how to test for mold spores on plants to the pixel requirements for store security cameras. There's still a lot of work left to do. The liquor board continues to review license applications and will now take on an enforcement and oversight role of the industry. And Simmons expects some grousing, especially with demand expected to outstrip marijuana supply initially.
SIMMONS: And I would just say, give it time. You know, this is day one of this infant starting to walk. So now it's going to come along, and it'll grow fast.
JENKINS: Simmons says the alternative scenario would be worse - a market glut that could lead to leakage of marijuana out of state. That's one of the top concerns of the Obama administration. For now, the Justice Department has decided not to interfere with Washington and Colorado's experiment with legal pot. Not all of Washington's freshly licensed pot stores are ready to open.
(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING ON DOOR)
JENKINS: The door was dead bolted at a store called 420 Carpenter, a few miles from the state capital. The owner says, he plans to open on Friday, pot supply allowing. But already, would-be customers are showing up. Bobby Johnson says, he'd like to be one of the first in the door, but he's not looking to smoke pot.
BOBBY JOHNSON: Well, I'm a little more excited about the edibles, once that becomes available. I'm not really a big smoker.
JENKINS: Eventually, Washington pot stores will sell edibles, but that part of the industry still getting going. There's only one state inspector assigned to approve commercial pot kitchens. Also, the liquor board has to approve all packages and labels to make sure they're tamperproof and won't appeal to kids. The expectation is pot prices will come down quickly, but it may take years for Washington regulators and lawmakers to fine tune this new marijuana market. For NPR news, I'm Austin Jenkins in Olympia, Washington.
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