The world's first state-licensed marijuana retailers legally permitted to sell pot for recreational use to the general public opened for business in Colorado on Wednesday with long lines of customers, marking a new chapter in America's drug culture.
Roughly three dozen former medical marijuana dispensaries - newly cleared by state regulators to sell pot to consumers who are interested in nothing more than its mind- and mood-altering properties - began welcoming customers as early as 8 a.m. MST (1500 GMT).
The highly-anticipated New Year's Day opening launched an unprecedented commercial cannabis market that Colorado officials expect will ultimately gross $578 million in annual revenues, including $67 million in tax receipts for the state.
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Possession, cultivation and private personal consumption of marijuana by adults for the sake of just getting high already has been legal in Colorado for more than a year under a state constitutional amendment approved by voters. As of Wednesday, though, cannabis was being legally produced, sold and taxed in a system modeled after a regime many states have in place for alcohol sales - but which exists for marijuana nowhere in the world outside of Colorado.
Scores of customers lined up in the cold and snow outside at least two Denver-area stores on Wednesday morning waiting for doors to open.
“I wanted to be one of the first to buy pot and no longer be prosecuted for it. This end of prohibition is long overdue,” said Jesse Phillips, 32, an assembly-line worker who was the day's first patron at Botana Care in the Denver suburb of Northglenn. He had camped outside the shop since 1 a.m.
A cheer from about 100 fellow customers waiting in line to buy went up as Phillips made his purchase, an eighth-ounce sampler pack containing four strains of weed - labeled with names such as “King Tut Kush” and “Gypsy Girl” - that sold for $45 including tax. He also bought a child-proof carry pouch required by state regulations to transport his purchase out of the store.
Robin Hackett, 51, co-owner of Botana Care, said before the opening that she expected between 800 to 1,000 first-day customers, and she hired a private security firm to help with any traffic and parking issues that might arise. Hackett said she has 50 lbs [23 kg] of product on hand, and to avoid a supply shortage the shop will limit purchases to quarter-ounces on Wednesday, including joints, raw buds or cannabis-infused edibles, such as pastries or candies.
Turning point in drug culture
Like other stores, Botana Care also stocked related wares, including pipes, rolling papers, bongs, and reusable, locking child-proof pouches.
Voters in Washington state voted to legalize marijuana at the same time Colorado did, in November 2012, but Washington is not slated to open its first retail establishments until later in 2014.
Still, supporters and detractors alike see the two Western states as embarking on an experiment that could mark 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,” said Ezekiel Edwards, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Criminal Law Reform Project.
Cannabis remains classified as an illegal narcotic under federal law, though the Obama administration has said it will give individual states leeway to carry out their own recreational-use statutes.
Nearly 20 states, including Colorado and Washington, had already put themselves at odds with the U.S. government by approving marijuana for medical purposes.
Opponents warned that legalizing recreational use 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. Representative Patrick Kennedy, co-founder of Project Smart Approaches to Marijuana, said 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 buy as much as an ounce [28 grams] of marijuana at a time, while out-of-state visitors are restricted to quarter-ounce purchases.
Restraint was certainly the message being propagated on New Year's Eve by Colorado authorities, who posted signs at Denver International Airport and elsewhere around the capital warning that pot shops can only operate during approved hours, and that open, public consumption of marijuana remains illegal.