DENVER — Colorado lit up the nation’s first legal adult marijuana market shortly after dawn Wednesday, and Brandon Harris was not about to miss it.
Mr. Harris and his friend Tyler Williams, both 24, drove 20 hours from Blanchester, Ohio, for the big opening. They arrived at the 3-D Cannabis Center at 2:50 a.m., which was good enough for 11th and 12th places on the store’s sign-in sheet.
Was it worth it? “Definitely,” said Mr. Harris, who lined up outside with about 100 other customers as snow began to fall shortly before the 8 a.m. opening.
“It’s such a big day in history,” he said. “The fact that we don’t have to be criminals and can just smoke, and not be looked down on, or have to mess with the local police.”
In a legal and cultural experiment being closely — at times nervously — watched by states across the country, about 30 Colorado medical marijuana shops began selling recreational marijuana over the counter Wednesday, a little more than a year after voters approved Amendment 64, which allows retail pot sales to those 21 and older.
Washington voters passed a similar measure in November 2012, but retail marijuana stores aren’t expected to open in that state until June.
“For the first time in history, adults are able to purchase marijuana legally in a controlled environment as opposed to in the underground market,” Mason Tvert, who ran the Amendment 64 campaign, said at a press conference inside the 3-D Cannabis Center.
“In every state around the country, adults will be buying marijuana today, but only in Colorado will they be doing it legally in a regulated store,” Mr. Tvert said.
The ceremonial first sale was made to Sean Azzariti of Denver, an Iraq War veteran who was turned down for a medical marijuana card because he claimed post-traumatic stress disorder, which is not a qualifying ailment under Colorado law.
“It’s mind-blowing,” said Mr. Azzariti. “It really hasn’t sunk in how big this is yet. I have a feeling when I go home tonight, it’ll really hit me. I worked on the campaign fighting for veterans with PTSD, and it’s amazing to see that those veterans will have access to cannabis now.”
Other states and the Obama administration will be watching to see how Colorado’s retail market functions. If it’s successful, pot supporters say, they expect the movement to spread nationwide. Activists in Alaska are circulating petitions to place a measure before the voters on the August ballot.
“It’s only a matter of time before lawmakers and voters in more states adopt similar laws regulating marijuana like alcohol,” said Rob Kampia, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project, the largest financial backer of the Amendment 64 campaign. “The dominoes are falling.”
But critics of legalized recreational pot predict other states will turn away after witnessing the unintended consequences of Colorado’s retail market, which they predict will include increased school truancy, addiction hospitalizations and highway fatalities.
Leading the way is Smart Approaches to Marijuana, a national group founded by former Rep. Patrick Kennedy, a Rhode Island Democrat and member of the New England political dynasty, and Kevin Sabet, a former adviser to President Obama’s drug czar.
“What we’ve tried to do is become a vehicle for monitoring of this experiment in Colorado and Washington, and to do so in the hopes that we cannot have to pay tuition fees twice,” Mr. Kennedy said at a Tuesday press conference. “We don’t have to have other states go down this road and have to learn the same hard lessons that residents of Colorado are already learning.”
Not every municipality in Colorado is selling recreational marijuana. A number of cities, including Colorado Springs, have banned retail pot shops, while Denver and others are expecting to benefit from a surge in tourism from out-of-state tokers.
State officials estimate that sales will generate $70 million in tax revenue the first year from the combination of a 15 percent excise tax and a special sales tax that starts at 10 percent, but can climb as high as 15 percent.
That doesn’t include taxes imposed by municipalities such as Denver, which has added a 3.5 percent sales tax on top of the state taxes.
Despite the expected jump in tax revenue, Colorado’s top lawmakers didn’t schedule any ribbon cuttings to coincide with the launch. Gov. John Hickenlooper and Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, Democrats who opposed legalization, declined to attend any of the grand openings.
The lack of an official imprimatur didn’t put a damper on the festivities for out-of-staters like Steven Reynolds, who drove 17 hours with his girlfriend, Kim Berger, from Goshen, Ind. It was their first trip to Denver, but probably not their last.
“I don’t think Indiana will ever do this,” Mr. Reynolds said. “So this was a chance to be part of history. People have been fighting for this for a long time.”
Darren and Tyler Austin, a father and son from Augusta, Ga., painted their faces green, and their friend Sawyer Foster of Longmont, Colo., dyed his hair.
“We just wanted to be part of the celebration,” said Darren Austin. “It’s definitely a history-making moment.”
Tyler Austin held a hand-painted sign that reflected the views of many marijuana enthusiasts: “It’s About Time.”