DENVER | There's something in the air as Colorado celebrates the new year, and it's not just confetti and champagne.
The nation's first retail marijuana market makes its much-anticipated debut Wednesday amid excitement, apprehension and a pervasive sense that nobody quite knows what's going to happen next.
"It's a carnivalish, very festive atmosphere," said Toni Fox, owner of the 3-D Cannabis Center in Denver. "We're making history."
Ms. Fox is one of more than 30 retail-marijuana licensees who plan to step into the unknown on New Year's Day, and like the others, she was doing everything possible Tuesday to anticipate the deluge.
She's rented a Port-A-Potty and hired a food truck for the customers who plan to camp out on the sidewalk outside her shop on Brighton Boulevard on New Year's Eve. How many campers? She's not sure.
"I've heard people are going to spend the night outside the store," said Ms. Fox. "It could be a dozen or it could be hundreds. But it's New Year's Eve in the Rocky Mountains, so they might change their minds when they see how cold it gets."
Voters in both Colorado and Washington approved statewide initiatives legalizing recreational marijuana for adults 21 and over on the November 2012 ballot. On Jan. 1, however, only Colorado will be selling retail marijuana.
Brian Smith, spokesman for the Washington State Liquor Control Board, said state authorities will be issuing retail licenses for marijuana in late February or March, with stores opening as early as June.
"I think the difference being that Colorado [already] had a sophisticated medical-marijuana system, and they're just transferring over to the recreational side of things," said Mr. Smith. "We did not go that route and did not have a sophisticated medical-marijuana system in Washington to be able to do that."
The mood was far from celebratory at a Tuesday news conference held by Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM), an anti-drug group headed by former Rep. Patrick Kennedy, Rhode Island Democrat, and Kevin Sabet, a former adviser to President Obama's drug czar.
"I see Colorado tomorrow and the state of Washington as really canaries in the coal mine," said Mr. Kennedy, predicting that Colorado and Washington residents would soon begin to see the "unintended consequences" of legalization, citing use among adults and teenagers, addiction-related hospitalizations, school truancies, and road fatalities.
Bob Doyle, who heads SAM Colorado, said the ultimate goal would be to repeal Amendment 64, although Mr. Sabet said there was no plan in the works to place a repeal measure on the ballot.
Mason Tvert, who led the Amendment 64 campaign, said polls show Americans are moving toward recreational marijuana legalization for adults, not against it.
"Unfortunately for opponents of marijuana-reform policy, progress only goes forward," Mr. Tvert said. "Americans are clearly fed up with marijuana prohibition, whether [its foes] like it or not."
So far the biggest concern for Colorado marijuana retail licensees isn't repeal, but rather whether they'll have enough supply to keep up with demand after their stores open early Wednesday.
"There was a final push in the last few days to purchase wholesale," said Ms. Fox. "But it's not going to be nearly enough."
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