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Pot legalization debate rages on as shops open in Colorado

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WASHINGTON – After years of politicking and planning, Colorado will make history today when it opens the first retail marijuana stores in the United States, allowing state residents to buy up to an ounce of the drug.

Out-of-state visitors will be allowed to buy a quarter of an ounce at a time.

While proponents celebrated the long-awaited day, opponents warned that the nation is about to launch a high-stakes experiment that will lead to higher rates of drug addiction, lower academic scores for children and more arrests for drugged driving.

As the “Rocky Mountain High” becomes officially enshrined in law, Sean Azzariti, an Iraq War veteran who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, will make the first legal purchase at 3D (Denver’s Discreet Dispensary) at 8 a.m. on New Year’s Day. He appeared in a television ad in 2012 to explain how legalizing recreational use would help him because his condition was not covered under the state’s medical marijuana law.

“Adults are using marijuana in every state across the nation. In Colorado, they will now be purchasing it from legitimate businesses instead of in the underground market,” said Mason Tvert, spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project in Denver, which helped lead the legalization campaign.

“It’s a tough day to be part of a street gang in Colorado,” said Neill Franklin, executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a group of law enforcement officials opposed to the war on drugs. Instead of focusing on pot smokers, he said, police will now be freed to pursue “real criminals with everything they’ve got.”

To prepare for the store openings, the Denver Post boosted its news coverage, hiring a marijuana editor, creating a newsletter for readers and a pot website that includes recipes for “cannabis-themed dinners” and reviews of the latest pot films and marijuana strains such as “triple diesel” and “granddaddy purple.”

So far, the state has licensed 136 pot stores to begin selling the drug to anyone over age 21, though not all of them are expected to be up and running on the first day. All of the shops will have to operate as cash-only businesses because they’re prohibited from using banks under federal law. State officials estimate the sales will generate $67 million in tax revenue each year.

Twenty states allow marijuana for medical use, including New Mexico. In Illinois, the law takes effect today. But Colorado and Washington state are the only two that have approved pot for recreational use. Washington state is expected to open more than 300 pot shops in June. The two states are proceeding after the Justice Department in August said it would not block their plans, even though Congress has long banned marijuana.

Patrick Kennedy, a former Democratic congressman from Rhode Island and the chairman of Project SAM (Smart Approaches to Marijuana), a group that opposes legalization, called Colorado and Washington state “canaries in the coal mine.” He said his group will closely follow trends there as a way to convince other states not to legalize marijuana.

And he said voters in those states should reconsider legalization, predicting it will lead to more highway fatalities, increased hospitalizations and higher dropout and truancy rates for schoolchildren.

“We don’t have to have other states go down this road and have to learn the same hard lessons,” Kennedy said in a conference call with reporters.

Drug addiction experts from Colorado joined Kennedy, saying treatment centers in the state are already seeing more demand because of rising rates of teen marijuana use. And they said the drug is far more potent than a generation ago, increasing the risk of psychosis, brain impairment and addiction for school-age kids.

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