First they were supposed to open “early in the year.” Then they were supposed to open “in the spring.” Now they won’t open until at least July.

Weed is legal in Washington, but the wait for the state’s first retail pot shops is growing interminable. Eager potheads are still relying on the black market, or the few MMJ dispensaries gutsy enough to sell openly to the public.

Washington PotWhat’s just as bad, businesses are losing millions as they wait for state approval. Not to mention the tax revenue the state isn’t earning.

“There’s people that are spending money and taking risk to set up retail stores,” said John Davis, CEO of the Northwest Patient Resource Center, a dispensary in Seattle. “The Liquor Control Board being all over the place, this could very easily turn into a lawsuit.”

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Washington voters legalized recreational pot in 2012, as did voters in Colorado. That state saw its first pot shops open Jan. 1 to brisk business and few glitches.

Now Washingtonians are wondering, what’s the hold up? It’s been more than 16 months since weed became legal, and the state started issuing recreational marijuana licenses in March. Yet the process is badly behind schedule, and just eight growers have been licensed.

All retail cannabis sold in Washington must be grown in Washington, so that means the first shops to open may not even have supply to sell.

“If I’m given a license, sure, I’ll open my doors to let people come down and film my empty shelves,” Davis said. “There’s not going to be much supply to begin with. There’s nothing easy about the cannabis industry.”

Officials point to a number of reasons for the delay. Conflicting laws for MMJ and recreationalbuds in jars pot shop weed created a complex, hazy legal situation. The state chose to segregate cultivation and sales, barring retailers from growing their own product – a path Colorado consciously avoided.

Mostly, though, the Washington Liquor Control Board was swamped with far more license applications than officials expected – more than 2,000 total. The board will issue just 21 licenses in King County, home to Seattle, yet 411 prospects applied.

As many as half the applications were turned in with required information missing, said Brian Smith, a spokesman for the Liquor Control Board. The board gave applicants more time to supply the data, delaying the process by weeks.

“The LCB, to their credit, has really been bending over backward to help,” said Alison Holcumb, criminal justice director at the ACLU’s Washington office and the manager of the state’s successful marijuana initiative. “They didn’t really have a good idea of how many applications they would get.”

A lottery system will decide which applicants get licenses. Those stores should be able to open in July, assuming other delays don’t hamper the process further.

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