Colorado marijuana sales: Long lines for smooth rollout of legal business

Throngs of buyers, media, and law enforcement officials greeted the Wednesday morning commencement of legal recreational marijuana sales in Colorado, and there were few complaints.

John Wark/AP
A long line of buyers trails from a store selling marijuana in Pueblo West, Colo, Wednesday, Jan. 1, 2014. The nation's first recreational pot industry opened in Colorado on Wednesday, kicking off a marijuana experiment that will be watched closely around the world.

As the first light of 2014 hit the Rocky Mountains, buyers formed long lines in blustery Colorado weather to participate in the first legal sales of recreational marijuana in the United States.

Accompanied by a swell of media coverage and law enforcement officials, sales began at 8 a.m. Wednesday, and "government officials marveled at the calm," according to a report in the Denver Post.

‘‘Everything’s gone pretty smoothly,’’ Barbara Brohl, head of Colorado’s Marijuana Enforcement Division, told the Associated Press.

Thirty-seven licensed retailers opened for sales, most of them in Denver, according to the Post. Denver police issued two citations for public marijuana consumption during the day, but the department could not confirm that these were related to the day's sales.

Smoking pot in public remains illegal in Colorado, but the New York Times reports that some of the day's customers got around that problem by buying edible products like pot-laced chocolate truffles and baked goods.

Perhaps the only blip in the new industry's roll-out were inflated prices that customers worried could make the drug less affordable for medical users.  Colorado has not established a statewide pricing structure, the AP reports, and midafternoon Wednesday at least one dispensary was charging $70 for one-eighth of an ounce of high-quality marijuana. The day before, medical marijuana patients paid as little as $25 for the same amount.

‘‘We hope that the focus on recreational doesn’t take the focus away from patients who really need this medicine,’’ Laura Kriho of the patient advocacy group Cannabis Therapy Institute told AP.

Any Colorado resident who is at least 21 can now buy up to an ounce or marijuana legally, and out-of-state visitors can buy up to a quarter ounce, which they must consume in Colorado. To help keep the crop from migrating to states where it remains illegal, the Denver airport has posted signs warning travelers that they cannot take pot with them when they leave.

This was part of the state's effort to meet requirements laid out in August by the US Justice Department. Despite a conflict between federal marijuana law and the recent legalization by Washington State and Colorado, Justice said it would not interfere in the new industry as long as the two states effectively enforced eight regulatory points, which include the following:

• Prevent use by minors.

• Prevent pot that is grown for sale in the state from migrating out of state.

• Prevent the diversion of marijuana revenue to organized crime.

• Prevent state-authorized activity from being used as a cover for illegal activity.

• Prevent drugged driving and other adverse public-health effects.

Colorado has approved 136 licenses for retail sales, three-quarters in Denver County and all sites that were previously selling marijuana for medical purposes. State officials told the Post that recreational pot sales could add over $200 million to the state's economy.

“If Colorado is able to successfully legalize marijuana without causing a social backlash, the tourism, tax, and other considerations are likely to compel several other states to quickly follow suit,” writes the paper.

Supporters told the paper that enough signatures had been collected to let Alaskans vote on legalization this year, likely followed by Oregon. By 2016, ballot measures could be considered in Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts, Montana, and Nevada.

Colorado's is the only fully legal marijuana industry in the world; in the Netherlands, where it is famously tolerated and sold in cafés, it is not actually legal. Washington State and Uruguay in South America have both legalized pot, but neither government has yet hammered out a regulatory system. Washington's industry, regulated by the state's Liquor Control Board, is expected to open for business by the spring of this year.

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