Child-resistant packaging is a pillar of Colorado's rules for recreational pot shops, approved as a requirement months ago to reduce the risk of accidental ingestion by young children.
But several business owners say they are struggling to find vendors that manufacture the proper bags or can supply enough to meet demand in time for the opening of the first stores Jan. 1.
All retail pot products leaving shops — from buds to brownies — must be placed in opaque and child-resistant packaging.
"A number of our members are having an incredibly difficult time," said Mike Elliott, director of the Medical Marijuana Industry Group, the state's largest marijuana business group. "We're all looking for ways to comply with this rule, and everyone is worried we're not going to be able to, basically."
State regulators are not sympathetic. The packaging requirements were the subject of high-profile debate, were approved Sept. 9 and put into effect Oct. 15, said Julie Postlethwait, spokeswoman for the Colorado Marijuana Enforcement Division. She said it is disappointing if store owners waited until the last minute.
"This is not a surprise that came and hit them over the heads," Postlethwait said. "The main point here, the focus the industry tends to forget, is we exist in order to ensure public safety. You don't want a child ingesting high-potency infused products. The risk is a child's health."
Industry representatives say they are committed to following the rules and keeping pot away from children. But they say they also are juggling a number of regulatory demands as they rush to prepare for what they hope will be a historic day.
Some prospective pot-shop owners — most are awaiting licensing and inspection approval that will allow them to open — say they've just recently found solutions to avert a packaging crisis.
Ean Seeb, co-owner of the medical-marijuana dispensary Denver Relief, said he has been talking since October with a New York company that sells a product called Stink Sack.
The company's owner, Ross Kirsh, landed in Denver this week and is visiting dispensaries with prototypes of his smell-proof bag with a double-locking mechanism that comes in three pot-friendly sizes.
The state defines child-resistant packaging as "significantly difficult for children under 5 years of age to open and not difficult for normal adults to use properly" based on an international standards organization.
Kirsh said a half million of his opaque bags are in production and will be ready for delivery by Jan. 1.
Other companies are pitching packaging, but business owners remain skeptical there will be enough to go around.
Ryan Cook, a co-owner of The Clinic in Denver, a chain of medical marijuana dispensaries branching into retail sales, said he ordered packaging from China before the final state rules were issued because the turnaround for delivery is about three months.
Now, he is sitting on $40,000 worth of bags that don't pass muster because they are opaque on one side and clear on the other.
"For us, it was an unfortunate situation," Cook said. "But now I think the whole industry is faced with, 'Can everyone get the packaging they need in the time frame they need it?' That might be an uphill battle."
The Clinic prepackages its products at a warehouse and ships them to its six dispensaries, making tracking easier and more secure, he said. But Cook can't prepackage in darkened bags because customers want to see what they're shopping for. Something will need to change, he said.
"It stinks," Cook said. "It's our mistake. We knew the rules were coming out. But we were under the impression we had a package that was considered child-proof, resealable and tamper-proof."
An August report from researchers at the Colorado School of Public Health and Children's Hospital Colorado predicted accidental marijuana ingestion by children would be cut nearly in half if the state required opaque, child-resistant packaging for pot leaving stores.
Colorado saw a rise in emergency-room visits by children who had ingested pot after medical dispensaries grew in number.
Postlethwait said ramifications for breaking packaging rules are being finalized, but the state can initially fine violators and take more serious actions if problems persist.