FOR reasons as hazy as a cloud of Sour Diesel smoke, the number 420 is cherished by America’s stoners. So it was fitting that on January 1st, 420 days after Coloradans awoke to discover that, along with Washington state, theirs had become the first jurisdiction in the world to vote to remove the criminal prohibition on recreational marijuana, around 40 state-licensed pot shops flung open their doors to all-comers. Four-hour queues snaked along the streets of Denver and other cities. Swamped by newbies, many from out of state, shop staff toiled to explain the difference between sativa (which delivers a “cerebral”, energetic high suited to daytime use) and indica (a depressive effect; better consumed late).
“Should’ve done it 40 years ago!” growls a middle-aged man making his first purchase at Medicine Man, one of Denver’s biggest retail outlets. (A home-grower, he later confides that he got bored smoking the same old strains.) For optimists, the votes in Colorado and Washington suggest that America’s war on drugs is finally winding down. The casualties have been legion: 750,000 people are arrested each year for marijuana alone; the subsequent blotted records can derail lives. Some 40,000 people languish in prison for pot-related offences. Murderous gangs fill the supply gap created by prohibition.
Public opinion appears to have reached a tipping point. Most Americans now favour legalisation; something that was unthinkable a generation ago (see chart). Advocates have waged savvy campaigns, gaining footholds by legalising marijuana for medical purposes (so far in 20 states and Washington, DC) and presenting a clean-cut, besuited image worlds away from the tie-dyed stereotypes. More states may free the weed before long.
Yet legalisation is just the beginning of a process, and Colorado and Washington have taken different routes. Colorado has built on the foundations of its medical-marijuana system. Until October (and 2016 in Denver) only medical-marijuana operators may receive licences to serve recreational customers, which is why many of the shops that welcomed newcomers on January 1st have names like Citi-Med and Evergreen Apothecary. (Retailers exult that they are no longer obliged to speak of “medicine” and “patients”.) During this time Colorado’s retailers must grow at least 70% of the marijuana they sell.
Washington, by contrast, is creating a recreational market from scratch; this is why its shops…