JOE HANEL/Durango Herald
DENVER – For $59.74, Sean Azzariti made the symbolic first over-the-counter, government-regulated purchase of recreational marijuana anywhere in the United States shortly after 8 a.m. New Year’s Day.
Dozens of news photographers crowded around Azzariti for what could have been the most thoroughly documented retail transaction in state history.
Some 150 people got in line behind Azzariti at Denver’s Discreet Dispensary, one of around 40 Colorado shops that began selling marijuana to anyone, with or without a doctor’s recommendation.
“It’s a watershed moment as we end prohibition in our country and move into a more sensible era,” said Brian Vicente, one of the principal authors of Amendment 64, which made Colorado the first state to legalize recreational marijuana.
First in line was Azzariti, a veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who has post-traumatic stress disorder. The condition is not covered by Colorado’s medical marijuana law.
Next in line were Adam Hartle and Anthony Hashem, filmmakers from Jacksonville, Fla., who are making a “comedy documentary” about legalization in Colorado. They got in line at 6 p.m. New Year’s Eve and took turns holding their spot in a tent.
“We just think it’s going to change the world,” Hartle said.
The sentiment was common among people in line. They included men and women of all ages, but young men were the clear majority.
Darren Austin and his adult son, Tyler, came from Georgia and North Carolina for the occasion. With their green face paint, they were the only ones who came in costume.
“We talked about this years ago and said we’ll never see this happen,” Darren Austin said. “I feel free. It’s a good day for everybody.”
Not everyone shares the enthusiasm.
Former congressman Patrick Kennedy heads Smart Approaches to Marijuana, and he hopes other states will be watching and will avoid making Colorado’s mistakes.
During a media call Tuesday, he predicted legalization will lead to more drug abuse.
“If you increase the availability, if you reduce the perceived harm or risk … you’re going to see increased use. There’s no arguing those facts,” Kennedy said.
If Kennedy and his allies get their way, Wednesday’s scene won’t last long. Bob Doyle is launching a Colorado chapter of SAM and announced Tuesday that his group aims to repeal Amendment 64.
“We want to get this back to the voters for another decision because we don’t think that the people have all the facts,” Doyle said.
But marijuana advocates aren’t playing defense. Instead, they are looking to legalization votes in Alaska and maybe Oregon later this year. In 2016, the Marijuana Policy Project, which bankrolled Amendment 64, has committed to running ballot initiatives in Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts, Montana and Nevada, said Mason Tvert, the group’s communications director.
But only one state is first, and that’s Colorado. Although Washington state voters legalized marijuana at the same time as Colorado, stores there will not open for a few more months.
As the morning snow gave way to a cool, partly cloudy day, lines of 100 people or more formed outside pot stores across Denver, where 18 stores were licensed to convert their medical marijuana into pot for sale to anyone older than 21.
Barbara Brohl, executive director of the Department of Revenue, visited one of those stores, Medicine Man, in a warehouse district in northeast Denver. Brohl’s department is in charge of policing the new industry, and she said the first day’s activity was proceeding well.
“We have done everything we could do. We have gone about this in a very thoughtful manner,” she said.
As Brohl spoke, a man in a black sweatshirt with graying hair walked out of the store, waving a sealed plastic bag full of marijuana above his head.
“Finally! All right!” he yelled. “It’s about damn time.”