As few as five to ten Denver-area pot shops may be allowed to start selling recreational weed when Colorado's landmark law goes into effect on January 1, despite more than 100 businesses waiting for approval from the city.
Dispensary owners say they're facing delays that could prevent a vast majority of shops from being able to sell retail marijuana to adults 21-and-over come the new year.
“It has been very frustrating from a multitude of angles working with Denver City and County, the various departments within the government," Toni Fox, owner of 3D Cannabis Center in Denver, told The Huffington Post. "Right now what’s happening is there are a few of us that have had all of our T's crossed and I’s dotted since day one and we’re ready, but there’s just this delay."
Fox, whose application has received approval for recreational marijuana sales, said she has been trying to get an inspection for about two weeks, but finally got the appointment set up on Monday.
“There’s a sense of frustration and a feeling amongst industry people that we have an adversary city government trying to implement a program that they don’t want,” she added.
Denver Mayor Michael Hancock's spokeswoman Amber Miller told The Denver Post that the inspection cards are issued immediately after a positive hearing result and the city departments "promptly implemented the new regulatory system -- concurrent with the state system -- after the ordinance was passed mid-September."
But Fox remains skeptical of Mayor Hancock's intent for the pot shops. Hancock has been a vocal opponent of both marijuana legalization and Amendment 64, which voters passed in November 2012 and makes recreational marijuana legal to sell and possess in the state.
“He’s never been a supporter of the industry from day one," Fox said. "I feel like we’re fighting against a city government that doesn’t want us even though the constituents have voted us in. It’s very frustrating.”
When asked by The Denver Post if Hancock "hated" the idea of marijuana legalization in the state, Hancock replied with a flat-out "yes."
"I have seen the devastation of the progression of marijuana to harsher drugs like crack cocaine," he added. "And a lot of the folks that have dealt with substance abuse -- particularly with cocaine and crack cocaine -- they started with marijuana."
Mason Tvert, communications director for Marijuana Policy Project and key backer of the Amendment 64 campaign in Colorado, told HuffPost that Hancock's personal stance shouldn't matter. "It's Mayor Hancock's responsibility to ensure the implementation is carried out effectively and efficiently, so it is a little shocking that he is still addressing questions about it with diatribes against marijuana and claims that regulating it will somehow lead to increased crack use," he said.
Tvert added that many city and state officials are working hard to get the marijuana retail system up and running on time, but some lawmakers do appear to be dragging their feet.
"All of the forthcoming marijuana retail stores are currently operating as medical marijuana businesses in good standing," he said. "The law allows for them to open their doors on January 1, and there is no logical reason why they should not be allowed to do so."
The process to obtain a recreational marijuana license in Colorado is extraordinarily rigorous. Only existing medical marijuana dispensaries in "good standing" with the state are able to apply, and shop owners must then be approved by both state and local jurisdictions. Once approved, proprietors gave a public hearing in which they must demonstrate that the proper regulatory controls are in place and that their business doesn't make the neighborhood less safe. Once the hearing is finished and pending approval from the judge, city officials must inspect the premises. All said and done, retail pot shops must obtain a state license, a city license and pass five city inspections.
The hearings for the marijuana businesses were supposed to begin in early November, but were delayed for nearly two weeks.
“It has been very smooth in terms of the process," Andy Williams, owner of Denver's Medicine Man dispensary, said to HuffPost. "But the hearings are the tough point. They started late. They were supposed to start in early November, but didn’t start until mid-November. They only do two hearings a day.”
Williams said his shop got through the process very quickly, and he's picking up his inspection card Monday.
“I have no doubt that we will be done with the process and open on January 1," Williams said. "But there will be a lot of people that won’t because they aren’t going to get through the hearing process. And getting inspections from the city in December is a troublesome thing.”
Calls to the city regulatory departments regarding the perceived delays in the approval process were not immediately returned.
UPDATE: Amber Miller, Mayor Hancock's deputy communications director, issued this statement to HuffPost regarding the approval process for pot businesses: "Although the state law indicates a preference for consecutive licensing process -- meaning get your state license first then your city license after -- the administration worked with the state to create a simultaneous process. If Denver would have implemented a consecutive system then little to no businesses would have received the proper licensing to open by Jan. 1."