A chilly day didn't keep people away from LoDo Wellness in downtown Denver, which by noon had given out more than 600 entrance tickets. Jan. 1, 2014 marked the first day of retail sales of marijuana in Colorado. (AAron Ontiveroz, Denver Post file)

Smokeless in Seattle: What if Denver started this way?

The dawn of recreational cannabis in Denver felt like one massive bong hit. After plenty of huffing and puffing and holding of breath, we experienced a full-body retail spasm as dozens of shops threw open their doors to long, smiling lines of customers — who themselves were exhaling after months of waiting — followed by what could only have been an unprecedented, statewide fast-food and pizza orgy that would have made Caligula proud.

Fully legal weed sales begin today, July 8, in Seattle, and the difference is stark: From what we’re seeing, sales may well be
met with the wet fizzle of a blunt dropped in a half-empty Starbucks cup.

Update: Seattle’s lone pot shop, Cannabis City, sold out of its inventory after three days of business and had to shut down until July 25. Story here.

That’s because out of the 24 pot shops licensed to open in Washington state today, Seattle will have only one. That’s right: a single pot shop for a city of nearly 700,000 people. And it’s not just a big city, but the cultural capital of the Pacific Northwest, a place known for its progressive music, food, technology, fashion and politics. There will be but one outpost of legal stoney-ness for all those post-post-grunge bands and bearded, banjo-toting folkies, one place for caffeine-juiced potheads to officially buy their state-sanctioned weed.

What gives, Seattle?

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Colorado, by comparison, saw more than 30 pot shops open on Jan. 1, 2014, our first day of fully-legal marijuana sales, and the majority were located in the Denver metro area, where a large chunk of Colorado’s population resides.

To be fair, Seattle has already been allotted 21 retail licenses (out of the state’s total 334) but the only storefront slinging weed today will be Cannabis City in the SoDo neighborhood. Who’s got more pot shops opening today than Seattle? Try Spokane (three shops), and Tacoma, Bellingham and Vancouver (two each).

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Standing in line for the first-ever recreational cannabis was a historic rite for many Coloradans, and one that seems likely to be repeated around the country as more states fall toward full legalization. But what’s the scene going to look like in Seattle? The mellow atmosphere that greeted our sales might be replaced with straight-up hysteria as limited supplies, customer frenzy and intense national scrutiny turn Washington pot shops into the media circus that Colorado’s political and tourism leaders once feared.

Or not. It could also be the aforementioned wet fizzle as true believers wait out low supplies and long lines — especially out of spite. Imagine how pissed you’d be if you canvassed, wrote letters to elected officials, attended meetings and voted in this multi-year effort in Washington, only to see your marquee city whimper its way into the brave new world of legal weed, like a nervous Oscar-winner clamming up during an acceptance speech and walking off-stage mid-sentence.

Cannabis City will certainly profit. Owner James Lathrop told the Seattle Times he expects to sell every last gram of his 10 pounds of his inventory in the shop’s first day. Residents can only buy an ounce at a time, but we’re pretty sure Lathrop’s prediction will come true as wide-eyed customers stream in and out starting at “high noon.”

Map: Colorado recreational marijuana shops and medical dispensaries

Still, it’s about more than just being the first, or the biggest. For organizers and boosters on either side of the pro- and anti- equation, serious reputation and precedent is at stake. Colorado’s mostly smooth rollout over the past six months has been a model of smart organization, despite some cultural hiccups and tangled legal machinations before (and after) Jan. 1. We’ve proven that proponents of one of the world’s most stereotypically laze-inducing substances can get their acts together and set laws and cultural attitudes in swift motion. We’ve made a statement.

So what kind of statement is Seattle making?

As professor and drug policy expert Mark Kleiman and others have pointed out, it’s hard to tell based on a single day. “After 80 years of cannabis prohibition it hardly matters whether commercial availability has to wait an additional few months,” he recently told CelebStoner.com.

Truly, everywhere that grapples with legal weed needs to do what is right for them, whether that means being restrictive, permissive, or somewhere in the gooey middle. (Ricardo Baca, the editor of The Cannabist, has some great advice for Washingtonians that he’s gleaned from more than six months of legal sales in Colorado.) But the giddy disbelief that greeted Colorado’s Jan. 1 sales — during which national media mingled with hungover partiers, housewives, students, grandparents, hippies and Juggalos — seems likely to be replaced with a collective head-scratching in Seattle: “Why couldn’t we get it together in time, as Colorado did?”

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Certainly the demand is there, as is the international attention and the will of Washington’s residents, not to mention all manner of cheesy paraphernalia sellers and horrid tie-dyed artisans with dollar signs floating in their bloodshot eyes. But the answer may just be this simple: “It appears that many retail store applicants just were not ready,” Bob Young, a reporter at the Seattle Times, told me over the phone yesterday.

Young noted that Colorado’s existing pot infrastructure has made a huge difference in preparing Colorado for recreational sales. Our first pot shops were already in good standing with the state as medical marijuana dispensaries, having proven themselves in the preceding months or even years.

In Washington, all bets are off. Not only is the regulatory scene a mess compared with Colorado — Young estimates many dispensaries operate outside of even basic licensing structure, which makes them illegal according to city law — but the places that DID get licenses were given them in a state lottery, and not because they fought to make themselves look more worthy than the competition. Many would-be shop owners can’t get their ideal financing or location, and so many are “newbies,” as Young told me, who lack the business and political savvy that surrounds Colorado’s relatively entrenched industry.

Washington wasn’t first, and given the fact that only one pot shop is opening in Seattle today, they’re clearly not the biggest or best. But they are next. And when you’ve been standing in line for this long watching others get served, who doesn’t enjoy being next?

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