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John Larson, a recently retired high school science and math teacher, hopes to be in the first wave of legal recreational marijuana salespeople opening shop here in Washington State this week.
Mr. Larson, 67, who was talked into the venture by his children, said he had never tried marijuana, and, in fact, voted against legalizing it in 2012. But as a business idea — well, that’s different.
"If people were dumb enough to vote it in, I’m all for it," he said over a cup of coffee near his shop here in southern Washington, just across the Columbia River from Portland, Ore. "There’s a demand, and I have a product."
After nearly two years of anticipation, excitement and dread by still-divided Washington residents, the first licenses for legal sale of recreational marijuana will be issued Monday, state officials said. Sales are to start about 24 hours later.
But the rollout is not unfolding as anyone quite expected it to, from the seemingly unlikely businesspeople like Mr. Larson who are leading the charge to the downright odd pattern of where the first shops will open.
Seattle, for example, with a population of 652,000 the state’s largest city and perhaps most marijuana-friendly, will have only a single store initially, and a tiny one at that: 620 square feet, called Cannabis City. But Vancouver, about one-fourth Seattle’s size, in a largely conservative county that has tried to slow or stop marijuana businesses with strict land-use rules, could have three shops. Tacoma, also in a county that has tried to block marijuana businesses, may have four.
The pattern came down to chance and circumstance, said Mikhail Carpenter, a spokesman for the Washington State Liquor Control Board, which wrote the regulations and administers the system. With multiple inspections and requirements to meet, "a lot of people weren’t ready," Mr. Carpenter said.
Only about 20 licenses out of 334 authorized by the regulations will be granted in this first wave, Mr. Carpenter said, with many would-be operators slowed by financing troubles, inspection questions or other issues. Mr. Larson, for example, applied for three licenses in three cities, and two were denied, in each case because state inspectors said the boundary line was too close to a licensed day care center.
He disagreed, but quickly gave up: "You can’t argue with the state."
And even the shops that open will not have that much to sell, because marijuana growers got their licenses only in March, not enough time to produce a big crop. Mr. Larson expects to have perhaps two pounds, which he expects could be gone in hours, and no edible products at all, since no state-licensed marijuana food producers are up and running.
Some retailers said they planned to ration supplies in the early days, allowing customers to buy only a small fraction of the ounce that the law allows for adults over 21.
Low supply in turn means high prices, at least at first, with an ounce — should anyone even be able to buy one — expected to cost at least $400. That is much more than a buyer would typically pay on the black market here in Washington, according to The Price of Weed, a website that surveys marijuana prices by state.
But in some ways, people like Mr. Larson put the most distinctive stamp on Washington’s halting first steps. Voters in Colorado approved marijuana legalization at the same time that Washington did in 2012, but then went down a much different regulatory path that pushed things faster, with stores open since January.
Colorado also created the first recreational marijuana shops from the medical marijuana dispensaries that were already in business, which meant that many of the first wave of operators were already in the marijuana trade.
Washington, by contrast, started from scratch, throwing open the application process and giving medical marijuana dispensary operators no edge in the competition for licenses.
In the little town of Prosser, population 5,800, in south central Washington, for example, two chiropractors formed a partnership and hope to open this week. In Seattle, a former restaurant and bar owner is expected to get the first license.
Ramsey Hamide, a manager of Main Street Marijuana, a shop here in downtown Vancouver that plans to open Wednesday, came into the business from the concert ticket industry. He and the other manager, Chris Stipe, are setting up shop in a former jewelry store after visiting more than 20 shops in Colorado to look for ideas.
"We saw what to do — and also what not to do," Mr. Hamide said. Anything that felt confining in particular — security doors and waiting areas for access into the product displays, a common setup for medical dispensaries — was rejected, he said.
"Keep it light, open and friendly," he said of their design plan.
And while many of the new business operators are brimming with optimism about the new market, others say the road ahead might be harder than people want to believe. Protesters in Prosser, for example, have been regularly picketing the chiropractic office of Tim Thompson, a co-owner of the town’s marijuana shop, Altitude, carrying signs with slogans like "God Judges Sin."
Initiative 502, which legalized recreational marijuana, passed with 55 percent of the vote statewide, but lost in much of central and eastern Washington.
"They camp out in front of my office every day," Mr. Thompson said in a telephone interview.
Mr. Larson, who said his son had also gone into the business, as a grower, is also braced for a legal fight even as sales begin. His shop has a Vancouver address, and the city has been accepting marijuana businesses, he said, but the shop is on the boundary with an unincorporated area of Clark County, where different rules apply. So Mr. Larson said he planned to be ready go to court on the opening day of business to fend off any efforts to close him down.
Whatever happens, though, he said, will certainly make for an interesting adventure, and after 35 years of teaching he said he was ready.
"My retirement date is when they close the lid on my coffin," he said.
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