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Legal pot sales off to hot start; others to follow?

– At 8 a.m. on New Year’s Day, in an industrial area a few miles from downtown Denver, a former Marine named Sean Azzariti walked into a giant store and bought a bag of weed. Legally. To smoke just for fun, if he’s so inclined.

Azzariti’s transaction – 3.5 grams of Bubba Kush for $40 and 50 mg of Truffles for an additional $9.28 – was the first in the state’s grand experiment in legalizing marijuana for recreational use.

The first-in-the-nation law was greeted with long lines at retailers and a lot of “Rocky Mountain High” jokes. But beyond the buzz, the measure represented the institution of a major new public policy in America – one opponents fear will turn the state into a dangerous land of debauchery and that backers hope sets a nationwide precedent.

If Colorado is able to successfully legalize marijuana without causing a social backlash, the tourism, tax and other considerations are likely to compel several other states to quickly follow suit.

Backers say enough signatures have been collected to put legalization before voters this year in Alaska. Oregon would probably come next, and by 2016, they hope to see measures on the ballot in six other states: Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts, Montana and Nevada.

Supporters are also hopeful that lawmakers will push for legalization in Delaware, Hawaii, Maryland, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont.

Washington state has legalized pot, but sales there won’t begin for at least a few months.

If problems arise in Colorado – whether that means residents get sick of stoner-tourism or there are a rash of marijuana-related accidents or crimes – it could set back a decades-old movement that has gained substantial momentum in recent years.

Experts say there really is no way to know which way it will go. “Nobody on Earth has ever done this before,” said Jonathan Caulkins, a drug policy expert and professor at Carnegie Mellon University.

Before Wednesday, the pro-marijuana movement’s biggest breakthrough came in 1996, when California became the first state in modern history to allow marijuana use of any kind when it greenlit medicinal use. Now 20 states and the District of Columbia allow it.

Colorado has approved 136 licenses for retail sales, three-fourths in the city and county of Denver and all at sites that have been legally selling marijuana for medical purposes. Eighteen city stores had completed the full process in time to open Wednesday. State officials expect dozens more to open across the state, and some have estimated that pot sales could add more than $200 million to Colorado’s economy.

Colorado residents 21 and older are allowed to buy up to 1 ounce of marijuana per transaction, and out-of-state customers are allowed to purchase up to a quarter-ounce.

Azzariti’s involvement was not by chance. He was active in the campaign to legalize recreational sales and, although he can use the pot however he pleases, the veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars said he needs it to deal with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Toni Fox, the owner of the 3D Cannabis Center, where Azzariti made his purchase, said she expects her average monthly revenue of $30,000 to grow more than eightfold, to $250,000, after improvements are made.

Doors also opened at 8 a.m. at Medicine Man, which boasts an even larger, 20,000-square-foot production space that the owners expect to double.

At Medicine Man, two nonresidents who bought the legal limit of a quarter-ounce of marijuana said it cost roughly $130.

Prices are expected to remain high in the short term, with only a few retailers and a lot of demand.

But over the long term, experts expect prices to fall with competition.

At Medicine Man, where the line Wednesday morning was as many as 75 deep by 10 a.m., a security guard checking identification at the door estimated that well over half of the customers were from out of state.

One customer, Kevin Schatz of Nebraska, said his 90-minute wait and the taxes paid were “well worth it.”