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Denver issues first licenses for legal retail marijuana sales

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A participant rolls a marijuana filled blunt at the 4/20 marijuana holiday in Civic Center Park in downtown Denver April 20, 2013.Reuters

Ahead of the day when Colorado residents aged 21 and older can buy marijuana for recreational use, the first batch of Denver businesses approved to sell the drug got their licenses Friday.

Applause broke out and cameras whirred when the first license was issued from Denver's Department of Excise and Licenses. The city awarded 14 licenses for retail shops, 17 licenses for pot growers and three licenses for makers of cannabis-infused products such as pot brownies.

One businessman joked about getting arrested for having a joint at a 1971 Black Sabbath concert. Others shared hugs and stories about marijuana's route to legalization.

"I think it's about time that adults can imbibe in marijuana," said Donald Andrews of one of the retail shops, LoDo Wellness Center in downtown Denver.

The licensed sellers went through a state and local licensing process that included public hearings to ask neighbors about shop locations. Owners also underwent more than a dozen fire and building inspections for each shop.

"It's been a grueling process but we're finally here," said Justin Jones, owner of Dank Colorado, a retail shop.

Recreational pot use by adults over 21 has been legal in Colorado for more than a year, but retail sales of the drug aren't allowed until 8 a.m. on Jan. 1. Washington state, the only other state to allow recreational pot use by adults, plans to have stores open by late spring of next year.

Retail sales of marijuana will be taxed at a rate of 25 percent in addition to Colorado's regular sales tax rate of 2.9 percent. State tax officials have estimated that the additional revenue would amount to $67 million per year, with $27.5 million already earmarked for new school construction. Individual marijuana sales will be limited to one ounce per person with a Colorado identification. Users from out of state can only buy up to a quarter-ounce. Resale is prohibited.

Denver is one of 19 municipalities and seven counties in Colorado that will allow retail sales of recreational pot. Among those who have not allowed it are Colorado Springs and Greeley. Officials in cities like Fort Collins, Boulder and Aurora that they will wait to see how the first few weeks of legal sales pan out before issuing in their towns.

Only existing medical marijuana businesses are now allowed to make the transition to recreational sales. The licensed shops were handed red posters Friday and stacks of fliers instructing pot customers on marijuana limits, including the fact that users can't consume pot in public, drive high, or take pot out of state.

"These are big businesses that have been operating in good standing in our city for a long time," said Amber Miller, spokeswoman for Denver Mayor Michael Hancock.

Colorado has approved 348 marijuana business licenses. More than a hundred of those are still pending in Denver, meaning the city is likely to have many more shops in the first few months of 2014. About 160 retailers are still seeking licenses statewide. 

"We're hoping next week will be a fun-filled experience but a responsible one," said Elan Nelson of Medicine Man, a licensed shop and growing center in northeast Denver. "But this is a new experience for all of us, I guess we'll just have to find out."

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