Huge demand expected as Colorado marijuana retailers open to the public

Unprecedented business expected to bring in nearly $600m in annual revenue and $67m in tax receipts for the state

The nation's first recreational pot industry opened in Colorado on Wednesday, kicking off an experiment that will be watched closely around the world and one that activists hope will prove that legalization is a better alternative than the costly American-led drug war.

Marijuana shop owners opened shoppers at 8 a.m., the last step in a retail chain that started in places like a warehouse tucked away in a blue-collar suburb north of Denver where a trio of workers had feverishly rolled hundreds of marijuana cigarettes by hand in preparation for the opening of recreational pot stores on New Year's Day.

As the doors opened at some Denver shops, there were lines of over 300 people waiting, the Denver Post reported.

The first legal purchase in the state was an Iraq war veteran, Sean Azzariti, who suffers from post-stress disorder, the Post said.

In Breckenridge, a small Rocky Mountain town, customers lined up in heavy coats in the snow outside the Cannabis Club. Shops were prepared.

"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.

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.

ACLU endorses legalization

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.

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.

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. 

Meanwhile, in Washington

Anthony Pardi, founder of Wolf Den Collective, a medicinal cannabis delivery service in Seattle, said his business has been operating since the Washington state voted for legalization, though retail stores are still months away.

The trick to surviving the grey area, Pardi said, is having "one of the highest ranking attorneys" in the state design the business guidelines. 

Pardi told Al Jazeera he didn't support Initiative 502 — though he supports legalization — because some details of the legislation worried him. He said he disagreed with the "extortion of the new DUI law" and said "anyone who smokes will test positive and the police will be able to arrest them at any time."

Saliva tests, which have been used recently by the Los Angeles Police Department in drug detection checkpoints, are able to detect recent drug use -- not level of intoxication. Marijuana would be detectable by the test for up to 24 hours.

Pardi also says the new law will drive up the price of marijuana for his clients, which is opposed to.

Al Jazeera and Reuters. With additional reporting by Renee Lewis.

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