Legal pot sales 20 months in the making

As Washington state readied to become only the second US state to allow people to buy marijuana legally without a doctor's note, lines were already forming in front of the lucky few stores that got last-minute approval to sell.

The start of legal pot sales in Washington state on Tuesday (overnight NZ time) marks a major step that's been 20 months in the making.

Washington state and Colorado stunned much of the world by voting in November 2012 to legalise marijuana for adults over 21, and to create state-licensed systems for growing, selling and taxing the pot. Sales began in Colorado on January 1.

Businesses including Cannabis City, which will be the first and, for now, only recreational marijuana shop in Seattle, got word early Monday morning from the state that they were licensed marijuana dealers.

John Evich, an investor in Bellingham's Top Shelf Cannabis, which will also open Tuesday morning, said they were ''pretty stoked.''

''We haven't had any sleep in a long time, but we're excited for the next step,'' Evich said.

Randy Simmons, the state Liquor Control Board's project manager for legal marijuana, said the first two dozen stores were notified so early to give them an extra few hours to get cannabis on their shelves before they are allowed to open their doors at 8am.

The store openings are expected to be accompanied by high prices, shortages and celebrations.

A survey of the licensees showed that only about six planned to open Tuesday. Some were set to open later this week or next, while others said it could be a month or more before they could acquire marijuana to sell.

Officials eventually expect to have more than 300 recreational pot shops across the state.

As soon as the stores were notified Monday, they began working to place their orders with some of the state's first licensed growers.

As soon as the orders were received, via state-approved software for tracking the bar-coded pot, the growers could place the product in a required 24-hour ''quarantine'' before shipping it early Tuesday morning.

The final days before sales have been frenetic for growers and retailers alike.

Lathrop and his team hired an events company to provide crowd control, arranged for a food truck and free water for those who might spend hours waiting outside, and rented portable toilets to keep his customers from burdening nearby businesses with requests to use the restrooms.

At Nine Point Growth Industries, a marijuana grower in Bremerton, owner Gregory Stewart said he and his director celebrated after they worked through some glitches in the pot-tracking software early Monday and officially learned they'd be able to transport their weed 24 hours later, at 2.22 am.

''It's the middle of the night and we're standing here doing high-fives and our version of a happy dance,'' he said. ''It's huge for us.''

Pot prices were expected to reach $25 (NZ$28.50) a gram or higher on the first day of sales - twice what people pay in the state's unregulated medical marijuana dispensaries.

That was largely due to the short supply of legally produced pot in the state.

Although more than 2600 people applied to become licensed growers, fewer than 100 have been approved - and only about a dozen were ready to harvest by early this month.

Nevertheless, Evich said his shop in Bellingham wanted to thank the state's residents for voting for the law by offering $10 grams of one cannabis strain to the first 50 or 100 customers. The other strains would be priced between $12 and $25, he said.

The store will be open on Tuesday, he said, but work remained: trimming the bathroom door, cleaning the floors, wiping dust off the walls and, of course, stocking the shelves.

At Cannabis City, despite the line already beginning to form, owner James Lathrop wasn't planning to open before noon.

''Know your audience: We're talking stoners here,'' he said. ''I'd be mean to say they need to get up at 5am to get in line.''