WASHINGTON — After years of politicking and planning, Colorado will make history Wednesday when it opens the first retail marijuana stores in the United States, allowing state residents to buy up to an ounce of the drug.
Out-of-state visitors will be allowed to buy a quarter of an ounce at a time.
While proponents celebrated the long-awaited day, opponents warned that the nation is about to launch a high-stakes experiment that will lead to higher rates of drug addiction, lower academic scores for children and more arrests for drugged driving.
As the “Rocky Mountain High” becomes officially enshrined in law, Sean Azzariti, an Iraq War veteran who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, will make the first legal purchase at 3D (Denver’s Discreet Dispensary) at 8 a.m. on New Year’s Day. He appeared in a television ad in 2012 to explain how legalizing recreational use would help him because his condition was not covered under the state’s medical marijuana law.
“Adults are using marijuana in every state across the nation. In Colorado, they will now be purchasing it from legitimate businesses instead of in the underground market,” said Mason Tvert, spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project in Denver, which helped lead the legalization campaign.
“It’s a tough day to be part of a street gang in Colorado,” said Neill Franklin, executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a group of law enforcement officials opposed to the war on drugs. Instead of focusing on pot smokers, he said, police will now be freed to pursue “real criminals with everything they’ve got.”
To prepare for the store openings, the Denver Post boosted its news coverage, hiring a marijuana editor, creating a newsletter for readers and a pot website that includes recipes for “cannabis-themed dinners” and reviews of the latest pot films and marijuana strains such as “triple diesel” and “granddaddy purple.”
So far, the state has licensed 136 pot stores to begin selling the drug to anyone over age 21, though not all of them are expected to be up and running on the first day. All of the shops will have to operate as cash-only businesses because they’re prohibited from using banks under federal law. State officials estimate the sales will generate $67 million in tax revenue each year.
Twenty states allow marijuana for medical use, including Illinois, where the law takes effect Wednesday. But Colorado and Washington state are the only two that have approved pot for recreational use. Washington state is expected to open more than 300 pot shops in June. The two states are proceeding after the Justice Department in August said it would not block their plans, even though Congress has long banned marijuana.
Patrick Kennedy, a former Democratic congressman from Rhode Island and the chairman of Project SAM (Smart Approaches to Marijuana), a group that opposes legalization, called Colorado and Washington state “canaries in the coal mine.” He said his group will closely follow trends there as a way to convince other states not to legalize marijuana.
And he said voters in those states should reconsider legalization, predicting it will lead to more highway fatalities, increased hospitalizations and higher dropout and truancy rates for schoolchildren.
“We don’t have to have other states go down this road and have to learn the same hard lessons,” Kennedy said in a conference call with reporters.
Drug addiction experts from Colorado joined Kennedy, saying treatment centers in the state are already seeing more demand because of rising rates of teen marijuana use. And they said the drug is far more potent than a generation ago, increasing the risk of psychosis, brain impairment and addiction for school-age kids.
Kevin Sabet, a former drug policy adviser for President Barack Obama who’s now the director of Project SAM, called the opening of the pot stores “the dawn of Big Marijuana.” Marijuana backers, he said, will try to convince the public that smoking pot is not dangerous, much like Big Tobacco first tried to sell cigarette smoking as safe.
But with polls now showing a majority of Americans backing legalization, Tvert predicted that other states will soon vote to approve recreational marijuana. Alaska could be among the first, with legalization backers trying to get the issue on the ballot in 2014.
“Marijuana is objectively less harmful than alcohol, and Colorado is the first place in the country to start treating it that way — it won’t be the last,” Tvert said.
Colorado residents “are about to show the world” that legalization can work, said Franklin of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. “I predict that after a year or two, once the media stops focusing on anecdotes of people behaving badly and we start to see hard data on the real benefits of ending prohibition, there will be a domino effect that echoes across the world.”
The Colorado state tourism office is officially downplaying the new industry, fearing it may hurt the state’s image as an outdoor paradise for skiers, hikers and nature lovers. But many private businesses hope that legalization will go a long way toward luring more visitors to the state to buy pot. Newly launched tourism companies, including one called My 420 Tours, said they would offer guided tours of marijuana dispensaries and cultivation centers.
While legal sales won’t begin until Wednesday morning, pot enthusiasts were making plans for some early-bird bashes, including “End of Prohibition” and New Year’s Eve block parties.