On Wednesday at 8 a.m. local time, Colorado officially began its grand experiment in retail marijuana. In a bit of smart choreography, the first customer at the Rocky Mountain State's new all-purpose pot stores was an Iraq War veteran, Sean Azzariti of Denver, who told a sea of national news crews that he planned to use his legal weed to treat his post-traumatic stress disorder.
Then, business opened for real at the 37 licensed pot purveyors that opted to open on New Year's Day. Lines were generally long. With supplies limited — plants for recreational marijuana couldn't be planted until January 1, so the day's inventory came from medical-marijuana stocks — and taxes of 25 percent or more, prices were higher than for medical marijuana or the black-market stuff on the street. Few people in line seemed to mind much.
Marijuana-legalization advocates have a lot riding on Colorado's groundbreaking pot experiment. As Jon Terbush noted Wednesday, 2013 was the first year that a majority of Americans said they supported legalizing the drug, according to Pew. Right now, Congress and the White House seem unlikely to do much to remove marijuana from the list of Schedule I controlled substances, much less legalize it, so all the action is likely to occur at the state level.
And other states, even other countries, are watching Colorado carefully. Some of them, like Oregon, Alaska, California, and Arizona, are going to vote on legalizing recreational use of pot as early as this year, through public referenda. Washington state will roll out its own non-medicinal pot market in late spring or early summer. The country of Uruguay is coming up with its own rules for its newly legalized recreational marijuana regime.
The Denver Post, which has assigned a full-time recreational marijuana editor, celebrated "Green Wednesday" with this vaguely trippy video:
The video concludes with a man comparing Colorado's law with the end of the Berlin Wall and the election of America's first black president. It also ends with three guys in green makeup and green hair saying Colorado's pot smokers want to set a good example to show the world that legalizing recreational marijuana can work.
That sentiment seems to have won the day. If Colorado is the world's new testing ground for regulated, legal, taxed marijuana, the pro-pot side clearly won the day.
"Police reported no problems with the crowds, and government officials marveled at the calm," says John Ingold in The Denver Post. "Overall, the day went as marijuana activists had hoped it would: In the most extraordinary way possible, it was ordinary." While sales were brisk, the whole buying process was "mellow," adds The Denver Post's Kirk Mitchell, who reports that Colorado's pot czar, Ashley Kilroy — no fan of the new law — was nonetheless pleased that things went smoothly and the pot buyers weren't unruly and didn't flout the law by lighting up in public.
In fact, "the only problems reported Wednesday," says the Associated Press's Kristen Wyatt, "were long lines and high prices." Some stores closed early to avoid running out of stock entirely.
Colorado's pot experiment is "off to a smoking start," says NBC News, which reported that among the old hippies and young counterculturists showing up to buy legal recreation weed were 10 out-of-staters who each paid $295 for Mile High Tours to escort them to a dispensary where a "marijuana concierge" helped them pick their buds. "We're your grandmother's pot connection," explains Mile High Tours owner Addison Morris, 63. "We're not the hippie stoners who are going to stand in this cold and party."
Grandmothers picking out potent nuggets with the aid of pot sommeliers and "mellow" stoners patiently munching on donuts and funnel cakes while waiting in line — these are images marijuana legalization advocates can live with. Even stories about people camping outside and waking up at the crack of dawn to stand in line to buy legal pot sort of undermines the stereotype of the unmotivated, lazy stoner.
This isn't to say that Colorado's recreational weed experiment is a success. "Questions still abound," says Jack Healy at The New York Times:
Will drug traffickers take marijuana across state lines, to sell elsewhere? Will recreational marijuana flow from the hands of legal adult consumers to teenagers? Will taxes from marijuana sales match optimistic predictions of a windfall for state budgets? What will happen to the black market for marijuana? [New York Times]
Drug addiction specialists are predicting sizable increases in marijuana addiction, especially among teenagers (who, legally, can't buy the drug); law-enforcement officers are worried about upticks in driving while stoned and the diversion of legal pot into the black markets of other states; schools are concerned about more pot at school and stoned students not showing up. Marijuana-legalization advocates have for years called these fears overblown, arguing that marijuana isn't nearly as addictive as other, legal recreational substances like alcohol and tobacco.
Colorado just started putting the arguments of both sides on the marijuana debate on trial. It will be years, or even a decade, before we have clear answers, says John Ingold at The Denver Post's new pot-centric website, The Cannabist. "So, sit back Colorado. Like it or not, this is a long, strange trip we're all on together."