The new year got a little happier for pot smokers in Colorado on Wednesday when retail marijuana outlets began selling recreational marijuana.
"Marijuana does not have to be a burden to our communities," said Betty Aldworth, deputy director of the National Cannabis Industry Association. "Today in Colorado we shift marijuana from the underground into a regulated market."
The first sale, orchestrated as a media photo opportunity, was made to a Sean Azzariti, an Iraq War veteran who has publicly lobbied for legalization and says pot aids his post-traumatic stress disorder.
Aldworth said pot sales in the state are expected to reach $400 million this year. More than $40 million is targeted for public schools.
But for many, the new law is all about fun.
"Honestly, I thought I'd never see the day," said a giddy Errin Reaume of Denver, who shared hits of concentrated marijuana at a 1920s-themed "Prohibition Is Over" party in downtown Denver.
Pot activists hope the marijuana experiment will prove that legalization is a better alternative than the costly U.S.-led drug war. Skeptics worry the industry will make the drug more widely available to teens, even though legal sales are limited to adults over 21.
Colorado set up an elaborate plant-tracking system to try to keep the drug away from the black market, and regulators set up packaging, labeling and testing requirements, along with potency limits for edible pot.
The U.S. Justice Department outlined an eight-point slate of priorities for pot regulation, requiring states to keep the drug away from minors, criminal cartels, federal property and other states in order to avoid a federal crackdown. Pot is still illegal under federal law.
Police in the eight Colorado towns allowing recreational pot sales were stepping up patrols to dispensaries in case of unruly crowds. Denver International Airport placed signs on doors warning fliers they can't take the drug home in their suitcases.
"We understand that Colorado is under a microscope," Jack Finlaw, lawyer to Gov. John Hickenlooper and overseer of a major task force to chart new pot laws, recently told reporters.
There was no shortage of skeptics worried retail pot would endanger the public.
A group of addiction counselors and physicians said they're seeing more marijuana addiction problems, especially in youths, and that wider pot availability will exacerbate the problem.
"This is just throwing gas on the fire," said Ben Cort of the Colorado Center for Dependency, Addiction & Rehabilitation at the University of Colorado Hospital.
Marijuana activists were hoping Colorado's grand experiment wouldn't be that noticeable after an initial rush of shopping.
"Adults have been buying marijuana around this country for years," said Mason Tvert, spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project. "The only difference is that in Colorado they will now buy it from legitimate businesses instead of the underground market."
Contributing: Associated Press