The new year got a little happier for pot smokers in Colorado on Wednesday when retail marijuana outlets began selling marijuana for recreational use.
"Marijuana does not have to be a burden to our communities," said Betty Aldworth, deputy director of the National Cannabis Industry Association. "Today in Colorado we shift marijuana from the underground into a regulated market."
The first sale, orchestrated as a media photo opportunity, was made to Sean Azzariti, an Iraq War veteran who has publicly lobbied for legalization and says pot helps mitigate problems stemming from his post-traumatic stress disorder. Azzariti spent about $60 at 3D Cannabis Center for an eighth of an ounce "Bubba Kush" and a pot-laden truffle.
"Thanks so much," he said to the cashier.
Aldworth said pot sales in the state are expected to reach $400 million this year. More than $40 million is targeted for public schools. Dozens of shops are opened or will open soon. She spoke of jobs, tax dollars and peace of mind for marijuana smokers.
But for many, the new law is all about fun.
"Honestly, I thought I'd never see the day," said a giddy Errin Reaume of Denver, who shared hits of concentrated marijuana at a 1920s-themed "Prohibition Is Over" party in downtown Denver.
There are, of course, limits. Sales are legal in only seven of the state's 64 counties, and nine municipalities including Denver. And Amendment 64, the state ballot issue that legalized pot, does not allow public pot smoking. Buyers -- and users -- must be at least 21 years old, and purchases are limited to an ounce at a time for state residents, a quarter of an ounce for out-of-state buyers.
Driving while smoking pot is illegal, as is driving under the influence of it. The limit: five nanograms or more of THC per milliliter of blood.
Pot activists hope the marijuana experiment will prove that legalization is a better alternative than the costly U.S.-led drug war. Skeptics worry the industry will make the drug more widely available to teens, even though legal sales are limited to adults over 21.
Colorado set up an elaborate plant-tracking system to try to keep the drug away from the black market, and regulators set up packaging, labeling and testing requirements, along with potency limits for edible pot.
There have been hiccups, however. Most recently, video aired Sunday by KUSA-TV of preparations for selling pot at one pot shop, Botana Care in Northglenn, showed employees licking wrapping papers as they made joints. It caught the attention of local viewers -- and Aldworth.
"In a regulated market, that's simply not acceptable," NCIA deputy director Betty Aldworth said. "The business that was filmed has already identified that it is in fact a problem. They've changed their practices and they are now selling all of their joints exclusively with water."
Botana Care says workers never had to roll a joint for business before, so they were not clear on the rules. While there are no specific rules against licking joints, there are regulations saying adequate sanitation has to be maintained.
Aldworth said it's obvious, licking a joint is not sanitary. But she does not fault Botana Care, saying retailers are in uncharted territory.
"This is just another example of the kinds of learning that we can experience here and apply immediately," she said.
The U.S. Justice Department outlined an eight-point slate of priorities for pot regulation, requiring states to keep the drug away from minors, criminal cartels, federal property and other states in order to avoid a federal crackdown. Pot is still illegal under federal law.
Police in the eight Colorado towns allowing recreational pot sales were stepping up patrols to dispensaries in case of unruly crowds. Denver International Airport placed signs on doors warning fliers they can't take the drug home in their suitcases.
"We understand that Colorado is under a microscope," Jack Finlaw, lawyer to Gov. John Hickenlooper and overseer of a major task force to chart new pot laws, recently told reporters.
There was no shortage of skeptics worried retail pot would endanger the public.
A group of addiction counselors and physicians said they're seeing more marijuana addiction problems, especially in youths, and that wider pot availability will exacerbate the problem.
"This is just throwing gas on the fire," said Ben Cort of the Colorado Center for Dependency, Addiction & Rehabilitation at the University of Colorado Hospital.
Marijuana activists were hoping Colorado's grand experiment wouldn't be that noticeable after an initial rush of shopping.
"Adults have been buying marijuana around this country for years," said Mason Tvert, spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project. "The only difference is that in Colorado they will now buy it from legitimate businesses instead of the underground market."