Justin Auchenbach, of Casper, Wyoming, celebrates while making his purchase during the first day of retail marijuana sales in the United States at LoDo Wellness. Customers purchase marijuana legally for the first time in decades on Wednesday, January 1, 2014. (AAron Ontiveroz, The Denver Post)

World’s first legal recreational marijuana sales begin in Colorado

In a historic swirl of commerce and cannabis, the world’s first licensed stores able to sell marijuana legally to anyone over 21 opened in Colorado on Wednesday.

Thousands of people from Telluride to Denver cheerfully stood in lines that took hours to navigate for the chance to buy legal marijuana after presenting nothing more than an I.D. Marijuana activists hailed the day as a watershed in their effort to overturn anti-cannabis laws. Store owners — several of whom said the turnout exceeded even their own ambitious expectations — feared running out of supply.

Police reported no problems with the crowds, and government officials marveled at its calm.

Overall, the day went as marijuana activists had hoped it would: In the most extraordinary way possible, it was ordinary.

“I’ve been waiting 34 years for this moment,” enthused Chrissy Robinson, who arrived at one store, Evergreen Apothecary in Denver, at 2 a.m. to be among the first in line. “I’ve been smoking since I was 14. No more sneaking around.”

A t 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 could commence 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 Denver store 3D Cannabis.

The store used to be called “Denver’s Discreet Dispensary,” a name change that speaks to the rapid evolution of Colorado’s marijuana industry, which began in earnest only about four years ago. Owner Toni Fox watched the clock carefully as the hour approached and dozens of reporters and photographers crowded into one of her store’s tiny purchasing areas.

“It’s 8 a.m.,” she finally said. “I’m going to do it.”

The customer was Sean Azzariti, an Iraq War veteran who campaigned for marijuana legalization and said he uses cannabis to alleviate symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Under a canopy of cameras, Azzariti bought an eighth of an ounce of the marijuana strain Bubba Kush and a package of marijuana-infused candy truffles.

“We did it!” a beaming Azzariti said at the end of the purchase.

The total cost was $59.74, including $10.46 in tax. At the bottom of the receipt was the message: “Thank you for your purchase!”

“I’m confident these businesses will perform and be a good example of how states can regulate marijuana,” activist Mason Tvert said just prior to the first purchase. “Today there will be people around the country buying marijuana. But only in Colorado will they be buying it in stores like this one.”

Opponents of legalization 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. Washington state will launch a marijuana industry similar to Colorado’s later this year. The U.S. Department of Justice has decided not to block legalization in either state, so long as the states implement strict regulations on the stores.

In a statement Wednesday, Colorado U.S. Attorney John Walsh said federal authorities “will be monitoring Colorado’s efforts to regulate marijuana closely.”

“Colorado’s system is still very much a work in progress,” he said.

Investigators from the Colorado Marijuana Enforcement Division made compliance checks at stores throughout the day. In Denver, city officials kept an eye on things, too.

Denver City Councilman Charlie Brown said he was “pleasantly surprised” by the large, mellow crowd he encountered during a visit to Medicine Man dispensary in Denver, where lines wrapped around the building and into a parking lot.

“It’s kind of a relief, frankly,” he said. “This could have gone a lot of different ways. So far, so good.”

“What I love about it,” Denver Councilman Albus Brooks said, “is the peacefulness of the crowd … and the diversity.”

Denver police said they issued two citations for public marijuana consumption, though a spokesman couldn’t say whether those tickets were connected to marijuana sales.

In Telluride, Lucas DaSilva of Georgia drove through the night and slept in his car with his dog Marley before settling at the front door of the Telluride Green Room around dawn. A few hours later, he emerged from the store $180 lighter but holding six grams of African Queen, Acapulco Gold and Bubble Gum strains of cannabis and several marijuana-infused edibles.

“I’m at a loss for words. Happy New Year!” he yelled, arms outstretched amidst cheers from the line. “This is history I just made. I can’t believe it. Such a blessing.”

At 8 a.m., the lines of customers outside most stores were fairly short, but they built as the day went on. By mid-afternoon, customers at BotanaCare in Northglenn said they waited as long as five hours to make their purchases. At LoDo Wellness, in Denver, the line stretched down the block, with a wait of around three hours.

Building owner Donald Andrews gazed at the line and yelled, “It is a thing of beauty!”

Stores were charging $30 to $50 — and sometimes more — for an eighth of an ounce of marijuana, which is slightly to significantly higher than prices for medical marijuana. At least one store had upped its prices for the day. Several stores, including 3D Cannabis, imposed limits on how much customers could buy.

Standing in line outside 3D, though, Brandon Harris didn’t much care about the price, the limits or the wait. He and friend Tyler Williams, both 24, said they had driven 20 hours straight from Cincinnati to be in Denver for Jan. 1 marijuana sales. Now that they’re here, Harris said, they’re not going back home.

“We’re staying,” he said. “We’re going to become residents.”

John Ingold: 303-954-1068, jingold@denverpost.com or twitter.com/john_ingold

Denver Post reporters Sadie Gurman, Steve Raabe, Zahira Torres, Eric Gorski and Jason Blevins contributed to this report

This story was first published on DenverPost.com