By Chase Sutton
On Jan. 1, 2014, a few dozen Colorado retail outlets opened their doors to customers eager to purchase recreational marijuana.
Colorado has permitted medicinal uses for marijuana since 2000, but voters expanded that to include recreational consumption with the decisive passage of a ballot measure in 2012.
Sean Azzariti, a two-tour veteran of the Iraq War, was the first customer in the state to legally purchase recreational marijuana. He smokes pot to alleviate symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder from his military service and had aided the legalization effort because PTSD was not a state-approved medical use for marijuana.
Surrounded by curious journalists and photographers, Azzariti purchased an eighth of an ounce of a strain called “Bubba Kush” and a marijuana-infused truffle, all for about $60.
Licensed retail stores can sell up to an ounce of marijuana to residents and up to a quarter ounce to out-of-state visitors. An ounce of cannabis can run customers anywhere from $200 to $500.
What does an ounce of pot look like? A standard joint uses a gram of marijuana, so an ounce is enough for 28 joints.
Buying marijuana is like buying alcohol. You must be 21 and have a government-issued photo ID to prove it. Most shops only take cash.
An ounce of marijuana is the maximum an individual is allowed to legally carry under Colorado law. Adults caught with two ounces could face a $100 fine and a misdemeanor, while those caught with more than 12 ounces could be charged with a felony.
Illegal distribution to a minor carries a mandatory four-year sentence in addition to any other charges.
Marijuana can legally be transported by car, but like alcohol, it must be in a closed container and its use is strictly prohibited while driving. Anyone suspected of driving while under the influence of marijuana will be given blood test, and those found with more than 5 nanograms per milliliter of THC could face a DUI charge.
Most individuals will fall below this limit three hours after smoking marijuana, experts say. Edible marijuana products can remain in the blood longer, and the advocacy group Colorado NORML advises against driving for the rest of the day after consuming any amount of marijuana edibles.
Edible products contain potent marijuana oils and can take up to two hours to produce pot “high,” according to experts, who advised consumers to be patient and go slow.
It is illegal to transport marijuana across state lines, and pot is banned from Denver International Airport.
It is also illegal to consume marijuana in public, including federal property such as national parks and national forests. Amsterdam-style coffee shops also are outlawed. Most hotels have banned the use of marijuana on their property.
So for now, marijuana must be used exclusively in private.
The only marijuana retailers operating on Jan. 1 were about three dozen shops that already were licensed to sell medical marijuana and had decided to branch out into sales for recreational purposes.
Additional shops will be opening, and the advocacy group Colorado NORML is maintaining an updated list of licensed retailers.
Colorado voters who passed Amendment 64 for the sale and use of recreational marijuana also decided to make it the state’s most heavily taxed consumer product. Cannabis will bear a 15 percent excise tax to support public education and an extra 10 percent sales tax to fund marijuana regulation.
The first $40 million raised from the taxes will go directly to the construction and renovation of public schools.
In response to Amendment 64’s passage, the U.S. Department of Justice decided not to challenge Colorado’s uncharted laws and instead will focus limited federal law enforcement resources on battling dangerous trafficking enterprises and keeping drugs away from children.
Colorado already has more than 500 licensed medical marijuana dispensaries in operation. Compared to retail marijuana, medical marijuana is considered more potent because of a higher concentration of the active ingredient THC.
According to the Colorado Department of Revenue, Colorado has issued 348 recreational marijuana licenses to businesses statewide – 136 for retail shops, 178 for cultivation, 31 for manufacturing edible goods and three for testing facilities.
“These licensed businesses have gone through the state’s rigorous retail marijuana licensing process, which includes the submission of required documentation, fingerprint-based background checks, financial checks and payment of licensing fees,” the department’s Marijuana Enforcement Division stated in a news release.
Recreational pot distributors must obtain additional licensing on a county-by-county basis, so state licenses alone will not be enough to sell recreational marijuana.
Colorado’s counties and jurisdictions also reserve the right to ban the use of recreational marijuana, as Colorado Springs and Greeley have already done.