DENVER - Legal marijuana sales in Colorado are set to start on Jan. 1, or so the law says. Knowing when the recreational pot shops will actually open, however, is anyone's guess.
The state's 160 hopeful pot shops are so mired in red tape and confusion that no one knows yet when or if they'll be allowed to open. Not a single shop will clear state and local licensing requirements until about Dec. 27.
"There's a perception that come Jan. 1, Colorado's going to be like Wal-Mart on Black Friday, people pouring through the doors. Not going to happen," said Mike Elliott, spokesman for the state's Medical Marijuana Industry Group.
Even as so-called ganjapreneurs are expanding operations, pouring concrete and planning tentative grand openings, they're still navigating a maze of regulations. Many of the applicants are still waiting on inspections, local zoning hearings and background checks before finding out whether they've been approved to open their doors to adults over 21.
"There might be a lot of disappointed people on New Year's Day," Elliott said.
Some of the largest potential new retail pot towns -- Aspen, Aurora and Boulder -- have already announced they won't have permitting red tape cleared by Jan. 1. Marijuana tourism companies that already lead bring-your-own pot tours in Colorado are putting off new trips, unsure where they'd bring tourists looking to buy legal pot, not just smoke it.
Even in towns hoping to have at least a shop or two open, such as Breckenridge and Telluride, there will be no 12:01 a.m. pot sales. Like liquor stores, marijuana shops have mandated opening hours, not before 8 a.m. anywhere in Colorado.
The regulatory delays are testing the patience of many in the industry.
Ryan Cook, general manager of one of the state's largest marijuana businesses, a chain of stores called The Clinic, is spending his days not prepping a grand opening plan but going to Denver's zoning, planning and fire departments to check on permits.
Cook recently counted out more than $1,400 in cash for some permits from the Denver Fire Department. He was then told he needs another permit for a new machine he acquired to produce marijuana extracts, a $50,000 contraption obtained specifically to comply with new safety guidance from the Fire Department itself.
"You guys have put me through the ringer," Cook joked after picking up the permits, just part of some $300,000 in various permit and license fees The Clinic's six shops will pay to various state and local agencies this year.
"It would be sad for us to see only one or two shops open in the entire state on Jan. 1, but I can see that happening," Cook said.
Julie Postlethwait, spokeswoman for the state Marijuana Enforcement Division, said recreational pot dispensaries can't open until local governments sign off on potential stores. Cities and counties have in some cases changed fire codes for pot operations, added new signage or zoning requirements or instituted new fees they say they'll need to regulate the industry.
Colorado's marijuana law also allows local governments to opt out of retail pot sales entirely. Even some towns with medical marijuana dispensaries may not be allowing recreational sales, such as Colorado Springs.
Colorado has more than 500 medical marijuana dispensaries, all of which require medical clearance before shoppers can purchase pot. Only 160 of those stores have applied to sell recreational pot, a change that would require them to either ban customers under 21 or keep separate entrances and inventories for patients under 21 and adult recreational users.
The small number of recreational dispensaries, and the last-minute uncertainty on whether they'll be allowed to open, has some in the industry warning of pot shortages and spiraling prices for recreational shoppers. Several retailers declined to share opening-day pricing, but they warned prices could be much higher than what medical patients are paying.
Cook said supply may be so tight that his four potential Denver shops may cap individual purchases below the state-mandated limits of an ounce a day for residents, or a quarter-ounce a day for visitors.
"We're doing everything we can to get ready. But supply's going to be a problem," Cook said.
In Steamboat Springs, Rocky Mountain Remedies owner Kevin Fisher said local permitting delays mean his shop won't be ready for recreational pot sales until Jan. 8. He said he's hoping the small delay will be quickly forgotten.
"I don't think anyone is too upset about waiting to do everything right," Fisher said. "So we open Jan. 8, 2014. That's a lot sooner than Jan 8, 2035, when I thought this might happen."