MARIJUANA smokers in Colorado yesterday hailed the arrival of America’s first recreational pot industry.
Retail sales were not to begin until 8am local time but marijuana fans did not wait to celebrate the industry.
“Honestly, I thought I’d never see the day,” said Errin Reaume of Denver, who shared hits of concentrated marijuana at a 1920s-themed “Prohibition Is Over” party in downtown Denver.
Across town, a dispensary was setting up a food truck and coffee service for campers awaiting the opening of sales on so-called Green Wednesday.
Temperatures were 2-4C – balmy for a January night in Colorado – and revellers ditched jackets and sweaters as they alternated between joints, bongs and other devices for inhaling dope fumes.
Activists hope the marijuana experiment will prove that legalisation is a better alternative than the costly US-led drug war. Sceptics worry the industry will make the drug more widely available to teenagers, even though legal sales are limited to adults over 21.
Preparation for the retail market started more than a year ago, soon after Colorado voters in 2012 approved the legal pot industry. Washington state has its own version, which is scheduled to open in mid-2014.
Marijuana advocates, who had long pushed legalisation as an alternative to the lengthy and costly global drug war, had argued it would generate revenue for state coffers and save money by not having to lock up so many drug offenders.
However, setting up regulations, taxation and oversight for a drug that has never been regulated before took some time.
Colorado set up an elaborate plant-tracking system to try to keep the drug away from the black market, and regulators set up packaging, labelling and testing requirements, along with potency limits for edible pot.
The US justice department outlined an eight-point slate of priorities for drug regulation, requiring states to keep the drug away from minors, criminal cartels, federal property and other states in order to avoid a federal crackdown. Marijuana 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 cannot take the drug home in their suitcases.
With the additional police patrols, the airport warnings and various other measures, officials are hoping they have enough safeguards in place to avoid predictions of public health and safety harm from the opening of the pot shops. A group of addiction counsellors and doctors said they are seeing more marijuana addiction problems, especially in youths, and that wider pot availability will exacerbate the problem.
Marijuana activists were hoping Colorado’s grand experiment would not 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.”