Colorado's ambitious experiment in cannabis policy hit a historic milestone Wednesday, when licensed stores began making the first legal sales of recreational marijuana anywhere in the world.
A few people queued up outside pot shops early Wednesday to celebrate and claim bragging rights, but longer lines began forming in Denver as snow fell later in the morning. Police reported no problems.
At least 37 stores across the state were fully licensed and opened to sell marijuana to anyone 21 or over for any purpose, according to official lists and Denver Post research. Sales began at 8 a.m., and activists -- who passed the marijuana-legalization measure in November 2012 that made the sales possible -- arranged a ceremonial "first purchase" at the stroke of 8 at the Denver store 3D Cannabis.
The customer was Sean Azzariti, an Iraq War veteran from Denver who was featured in pro-legalization campaign ads in which he said he hoped to use marijuana to alleviate post-traumatic stress disorder. The cost of the ceremonial first sale was $59.74.
These words opened the first recreational sales: "It's 8 a.m. I'm going to do it," said Toni Fox, the owner of 3D Cannabis.
One of the first in line at the shop, Brandon Harris from Ohio, said he drove 20 hours straight to be here and isn't going home.
"We're going to become residents," he said.
By a 3-to-1 margin, journalists inside 3D Cannabis outnumbered customers waiting outside before the shop opened.
"Today in Colorado, we shift marijuana from the underground market to the regulated market," said marijuana advocate Betty Aldworth.
"Prohibition has ended," said Michelle Wold, a Colorado resident and grandmother who said she wanted to be among the first in line at Evergreen Apothecary to celebrate history. "This is groundbreaking."
"It's been pretty smooth, orderly," said Sonny Jackson, Denver police spokesman. "People were acting respectable. The lines haven't been too long, maybe 20 to 30 people. We haven't heard of any problems."
Curtis Durham, 24, of Chandler, Texas got to LoDo Wellness in Denver at 5:45 a.m. He said he's looking forward to "buying a legal bag."
In Texas, he said, "I've been to jail two or three times just for simple marijuana possession of less than a gram. I went to jail for having a pipe."
Durham says he is looking forward to avoiding drug dealers .
"I'm going to go to as many stores as I can," he said.
The shop opened at 8 a.m. to a large but orderly crowd. One of those in line was John Stiltz, 62.
"I smoked pot for the first time when I was 16 in the '60s," Stiltz said. "I looked forward to the day when a harmless, recreational drug would be legal. I wanted to be part of the history.
Tyler Alstrup, 23, paid $100 for an eighth of an ounce, two joints and an edible. He smiled broadly as he held up the bag for a photographer.
Peggy Workman, 50, and her husband Charles, 56, said they usually buy from a friend who shares his medial marijuana. What kind did they plan to choose at LoDo Wellness?
"I have no clue," Charles Workman said.
Building owner Donald Andrews was getting into the spirit of the day, yelling "It is a thing of beauty!" as he gazed at the LoDo Wellness line.
Concerned about possible shortages, the shop said it might impose limits on the amount of marijuana customers can buy. Non-Colorado residents would be limited to an eighth of an ounce; residents would be limited to a quarter ounce.
Justin Achenbach, 39, came from Casper, Wyo., to buy "one of everything" at LoDo Wellness.
Unwrapping an edible, Achenbach said, "they're like hard candy. I can't wait to come back."
Charles Bechtel, 57, said he'll likely return to LoDo Wellness, which charges about the same as his dealer.
"I kinda like this," he said.
Bechtel remembers the first time he smoked, in 1968.
"Back then you could buy an ounce for $20 but it was Mexican and full of seeds and stems," he said.
At the Denver Kush Club, John Gray of St. Louis was among the first customers. He said he came to Denver on vacation.
"I'm like, they legalized pot today? So here I am," he said.
Denver Kush Club customer Terence McKenna said buying retail is "slightly more expensive but with far superior quality."
About two dozen people waited outside Evergreen Apothecary on South Broadway in Denver early Wednesday, warmed by the flame of a propane heater before the doors opened. The shop handed out certificates to some of its first customers.
Chrissy and Logan Robinson trekked from downtown Denver to Evergreen Apothecary after ringing in the new year. They arrived at 2 a.m. to be the first in line.
"I've been waiting 34 years for this moment," Chrissy said. "I've been smoking since I was 14. No more sneaking around."
Roger, who declined to provide his last name because he said he is a federal employee, said he was proud to be a part of history at Evergreen Apothecary.
"I don't even smoke pot, but I want to say I was here on the first day pot was sold," Roger said. He said he probably would save the marijuana has a memento rather than smoke it.
Max Talley and Phil Tatro stood outside of Evergreen Apothecary with a box of donuts waiting to legally purchase retail pot. Talley joked that no one in the line was taking any donuts.
"We thought donuts and pot would go together," Talley said. "I guess we should have waited until after people got their pot."
Several tourists waited in line at Medicine Man Denver.
"It's glorious!" one man from Omaha said. A woman from Atlanta said she was headed back to her hotel to smoke her newly purchased pot.
Some stores waited until 9 a.m. or 10 a.m. to open as usual. Others catered to small crowds as cannabis enthusiasts vied to be among the first people in United States history to purchase legal marijuana without a medical authorization.
"It's incredibly consequential what's happening there," said Allen St. Pierre, the executive director of the pro-marijuana advocacy group NORML.
Opponents of legalization, though, bemoaned the day as the beginning of what will be a disastrous venture for Colorado. Drug-treatment professionals said recreational sales will lead to increases in marijuana addiction among adults and kids. They compared the nascent recreational marijuana industry to the tobacco or liquor industries and said they expected it to spawn similar harms.
Kevin Sabet, a former White House drug-policy adviser, said Wednesday marks the dawn of "Big Marijuana."
"In any addictive industry, such as this one, the only way to make money is off of addiction," Sabet said.
While marijuana sales remain illegal under federal law, no place in the world -- not even Amsterdam -- has gone as far as Colorado to legalize and regulate sales of relatively small amounts of marijuana. Because of that, the sales are expected to draw the world's attention to Colorado on the first day of 2014. Journalists from across the country and the world are in town to mark the moment. And marijuana business owners and tour guides say they expect international tourists as well.
Despite the attention, the Marijuana Policy Project's Mason Tvert, one of the leaders of the marijuana-legalization movement in Colorado, said the day's true significance will be its ordinariness.
"Life will go on," he said. "The only difference will be that adults will no longer need to purchase marijuana in the underground market."
"It's just another day."
That, though, understates the amount of anticipation that store owners and government officials have put into the day.
Employees at the state's Marijuana Enforcement Division, as well as local licensing offices, have worked long hours to process applications within the 90-day window the law gives them. Recreational store owners -- all of whom currently own medical-marijuana businesses -- have jumped through licensing hoops, completed construction upgrades, scheduled inspections and paid thousands in fees. Store owners hoping to be able to open for recreational sales on Wednesday continued to dash into the Denver Office of Excise and Licenses late into the afternoon Tuesday.
When The Clinic, a Denver chain of marijuana stores, learned it will be able to open one of its locations for recreational sales on New Year's Day, it sent out a press release with an all-caps subject line: "IT'S A HOLIDAY MIRACLE!"
Marijuana activists like Tvert, though, said he expects legal marijuana stores to soon start feeling less extraordinary.
"Colorado is going to prove that regulations marijuana works," Tvert said. "It won't be long before more states follow our lead."
Just minutes before 3D Cannabis and other recreational shops opened their door, Tvert said: "Today, there will be people around the country buying marijuana. But only in Colorado will they be buying it in stores like this."
Denver Post reporters Sadie Gurman, Steve Raabe, Zahira Torres and Eric Gorski contributed to this report