NORTHGLENN, COLORADO — Inside a warehouse tucked away in this blue-collar suburb north of Denver a trio of workers feverishly rolled hundreds of marijuana cigarettes by hand in preparation for Colorado's opening of recreational pot stores on New Year's Day.
”We expect to have 2,000 joints ready to go by the time we open on January first,” said Robin Hackett, 51, co-owner of Botana Care, one of about a dozen newly licensed retailers cleared by state regulators to sell recreational pot starting on Wednesday.
Hackett and fellow marijuana proprietors in Colorado are pioneers in a new chapter of America's drug culture that marks the first time cannabis will be legally produced, sold and taxed under a special system many states have long established for alcohol sales.
In fact, experts say, no such framework for commercial marijuana distribution exists anywhere else in the world.
One of Hackett's joint rollers, Skyler Hall, 23, moved to Colorado from South Carolina several months ago and began volunteering at the store before he was hired.
”If it's going to grow the way we think it is, this could be a good opportunity,” Hall said.
Along with Washington state, Colorado legalized possession and use of small amounts of cannabis by adults for non-medical purposes - that is, strictly for the fun of it - under a statewide ballot measure approved by voters in November 2012.
But Colorado, already one of nearly 20 states with medical marijuana laws on its books, has led the way in establishing a legitimate market for recreational pot. The first businesses licensed for the new industry were shops already approved to operate as medical marijuana dispensaries.
Washington state is slated to open its own retail recreational shops later in 2014.
Once Colorado's system is fully in place, state authorities project wholesale and retail sales of cannabis products will total $578 million in annual revenues, which will generate $67 million in sales tax receipts for the state.
'Beginning of the end'
Even as Colorado and Washington move forward with their respective regulatory schemes, marijuana remains illegal under federal law, though the Obama administration has said it will give individual states leeway to permit recreational use.
Ezekiel Edwards, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Criminal Law Reform Project, said in a statement that the Colorado and Washington votes marks “the beginning of the end” for marijuana prohibition at the national level.
”By legalizing marijuana, Colorado has stopped the needless and racially biased enforcement of marijuana prohibition laws,” Edwards said.
But opponents warned on Tuesday that legalizing the drug's recreational use in the two Western states could help create an industry intent on attracting underage users and getting more people dependent on the drug.
Comparing the nascent pot market to the alcohol industry, former U.S. Congressman Patrick Kennedy, co-founder of Project Smart Approaches to Marijuana, told reporters on a conference call that his group aims to curtail marijuana advertising and to help push local bans on the drug while the industry is still modest in stature.
”This is a battle that if we catch it early enough, we can prevent some of the most egregious adverse impacts that have happened as a result of the commercialized market that promotes alcohol use to young people,” he said.
Under Colorado law, however, state residents can only buy as much as an ounce of marijuana at a time, while out-of-state visitors are restricted to quarter-ounce purchases.
'King Tut' and 'Gypsy Girl'
Curiosity-seekers expecting to see hoards of revelers lighting up joints and pipes on the streets of Colorado at the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve may be disappointed.
Officials in Denver have posted signs at the airport and around downtown warning that pot shops can only operate during certain hours and that open, public consumption of weed remains illegal.
A widely advertised New Year's Eve “Cannabition” event at a Denver dance club was canceled after city officials warned organizers that the planned soiree could cost the establishment its liquor license, and lead to civil and criminal penalties.
Back at Botana Care, Hackett said she expects between 800 and 1,000 customers to patronize her store on opening day.
The store has hired a private security firm to help with traffic and parking issues that could arise from the anticipated crush.
Hackett said she has 50 pounds of product on hand, and to avoid a supply shortage the shop will limit purchases to quarter-ounces on Day One, whether in joints, buds or cannabis-infused edibles such as pastries or candies.
A quarter-ounce sampler packet with seven strains of weed dubbed with such names as “King Tut” and “Gypsy Girl” - each said to produce a different kind of high - will retail for $85 to $90, including tax, Hackett said.
Botana Care will also sell such related wares as pipes, bongs, and re-usable, locking child-proof pouches.
Because there is a six-month moratorium on additional businesses applying for a second wave of retail licenses, Botana Care is the only recreational marijuana shop north of Denver, and Hackett predicts grossing $13 million in the first year.
”We don't have any competition,” she said.