Smoke if you've got 'em: Washington state this week joins an exclusive club as residents and tourists alike get their first chance to buy recreational marijuana.
The second state to legalize recreational pot -- Colorado allowed sales starting Jan. 1 -- Washington joins a fast-growing market that's already generating tens of millions of dollars in taxes with no signs of slowing down.
All that demand is expected to cause significant pot shortages and prices to temporarily skyrocket in the short term as growers match supply and buyers adjust to a system where marijuana is legally bought and sold from state-regulated stores.
Like Colorado, Washington already has a medical marijuana system. The new stores opening Tuesday allow adults to buy pot just for fun. Regulators in both states have been consulting each other via phone every two weeks for months, sharing tips and best practices as they develop them.
"I think they've got a good handle on what they're doing," said Andrew Freedman, Colorado's director of marijuana coordination.
Like Colorado, Washington state expects to see tight supplies in the initial days of legalization. In Colorado, for instance, prices for an ounce of high-grade marijuana rose past $300 in the first few days of January as lines snaked around the block at some stores and retailers blocked large purchases. Over the July 4 weekend, however, one large chain of Colorado marijuana stores was selling ounces for $85, plus tax.
For months, Colorado has borne the brunt of late-night comedians' marijuana jokes, but for state taxpayers, marijuana legalization is no laughing matter. Colorado already has collected more than $24 million in marijuana taxes and fees as residents and tourists buy pot at state-licensed stores. Washington state expects to collect $190 million over the next four years, according to government projections.
Colorado also has seen its fair share of negative attention from legal marijuana, including the experience of New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, who detailed her hallucinatory experience after eating a pot-laced chocolate bar. Colorado has also seen two high-profile deaths connected with marijuana edibles, which quickly became far more popular than anyone had expected.
In the first, a college student from Wyoming jumped to his death March 11 from a Denver hotel balcony after eating a marijuana cookie. Witnesses told police that Levi Thamba Pongi, 19, was rambling incoherently after eating a large serving of the doped cookie. The Denver coroner ruled that "marijuana intoxication" was a significant factor in his death.
Richard Kirk of Denver faces first-degree murder charges stemming from the fatal shooting of his wife inside their home in April. Kirk's wife called 911 to report he was hallucinating and rambling after eating marijuana candy and taking prescription medication. Kristine Kirk died while on the phone with a police dispatcher.
Hospital emergency rooms and veterinarians also have reported a significant increase in the number of kids and dogs sickened from eating the marijuana-infused foods, which range from cookies to gummy bears and mints. At the same time, Colorado has not yet caught any stores selling to underage buyers: a recent sting operation recorded a 100% compliance rate.
While medical marijuana users tended to buy buds and hash, recreational users, many of them trying pot for the first time, are experimenting with powerful marijuana-infused candies, sodas and even salad dressing.
Washington state won't be permitting edibles sales when the first retail store opens because the state has not yet approved any of the edibles manufacturers. That delay may give vendors time to adjust their products.
Dixie Elixirs, one of Colorado's largest manufacturers of marijuana edibles, is now offering low-dose marijuana products. The company got its start making medical-marijuana products, and those users said they wanted powerful but small products, said company spokesman Joe Hodas.
"From a safety standpoint, we realized we had to have a product that could be a 'safe' choice for those (novice) consumers and out-of-towners who maybe hadn't experienced edibles before," Hodas said. "We have consumers who want to experience some of the benefits of cannabis, but, don't want to smoke it and frankly don't want to feel fully stoned... the behavior is much like that of beer. You can have one, and then perhaps you want to feel the effects a little more strongly, you can drink a second. Or even a third."