SEATTLE -- His glass pipes are on display and final regulatory hurdles nearly cleared, but the biggest concern for Cannabis City owner James Lathrop as he opens his Seattle pot shop this week is the possibility of running out of mind-altering bud in a matter of hours.
"What do you do when your shelves are empty? Do I just send everybody home? Do we try and stay open? I can't pay people if we aren't selling anything," said Mr. Lathrop, who expects to become one of Washington state's first legal marijuana retailers this week as the state issues licenses.
The state is poised today to become the second after Colorado to allow retail sales of recreational marijuana to adults, under a heavily regulated and taxed system that voters approved in November 2012. Stores could begin operations as early as Tuesday, with up to 20 expected to open statewide.
While Colorado, where regulated retail sales rolled out fairly smoothly in January, is collecting millions of dollars per month in tax revenues, Washington has charted a glacial and more halting path to market.
Pot regulators, business owners and analysts say pot could sell out in Washington within hours or days at the few shops slated to open Tuesday. That is largely because of limited harvests by licensed growers and processors, or because they failed to clear regulatory hurdles to get their product to market.
Washington also is grappling with a backlog of hundreds of would-be growers who still need to be screened by overwhelmed investigators with the state Liquor Control Board, agency spokesman Brian Smith said.
The board has so far licensed fewer than 80 growers statewide, out of more than 2,600 applicants. And only a fraction of their pot -- roughly 560,000 square feet is in production, or about 10 football fields' worth -- has gone through required lab-testing. Many harvests won't be ready by early July.
"There is a gold rush mentality. Many didn't read what it would require to get a license. ... We didn't expect 7,000 applicants," Mr. Smith said of the number of interested growers, processors and retailers.
Cannabis City's Mr. Lathrop could find only one grower ready to ship Tuesday, opening day, and plans to suggest customers stick to a 2-gram limit to stretch his supply.
Shoppers looking to get high Tuesday could see a gram selling at $15-$30, said Dominic Corva, executive director of Seattle's Center for the Study of Cannabis and Social Policy.
Novelty-seekers and tourists might pay $25 or $30 per gram -- roughly twice the current price at weakly regulated medical dispensaries. At those prices, heavy users will stick with neighborhood dispensaries or drug dealers, Mr. Corva said.
Even as legal retail operations roll out, dozens of cities have enacted pot moratoriums or outright bans. Also, no stores will carry popular "edibles," such as pot-infused brownies, because no processor has been cleared to operate a cannabis kitchen.