Why Legal Weed is Working in Colorado

Inside the debut of the world's first retail marijuana market

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Jamie Chung for TIME

The center of the movement to legalize pot is in a red sandstone building a few blocks from Colorado’s state capitol in Denver. The activists who work there call it the marijuana mansion. Sprawling and a little shabby, with stained glass and dormer windows, it houses some of the country’s top cannabis lawyers, as well as a policy group that advocates for the reform of pot laws and the industry’s growing trade association. On the first Friday in January—Day 3 of Colorado’s grand experiment with retail pot sales—Christian Sederberg, an attorney who helped implement the law, was lounging in a room off the mansion’s foyer, exulting in the success of its debut.

“The rollout’s gone amazingly well, and we knew it would,” he said, leaning back against a brown leather sofa as sunlight streamed through the windows. “We’re on the right side of history.”

It may be too soon to say that, but Colorado has certainly made history. On Jan. 1, it became the only state in the world to legalize the sale of recreational marijuana to anyone over 21. At 8 a.m. on New Year’s Day, as most of the country slept off their hangovers, smokers were lined up in a light snow for the grand opening of Denver’s retail pot shops. Customers were happy to wait for hours and pay high prices for their chance to legally purchase taxed, tested and locally grown strains like Bubba Kush and Sour Diesel. Businesses say they banked $1 million on the first day, even though only a few dozen stores were ready to open their doors. And despite warnings that it would unleash reefer madness, the opening days went off almost without a hitch.

The early success of pot’s pilot program was ushered in by a phenomenon almost as rare: a government working as it should. Colorado’s Amendment 64 passed in Nov. 2012 with 55% of the vote—a mandate that belied a lack of institutional support. The healthy margin was driven by a grassroots campaign that cast marijuana as less harmful than alcohol, tapping into the electorate’s libertarian streak and attracting young and new voters to the polls in a presidential swing state. But only two state legislators endorsed the constitutional amendment. Democratic Governor John Hickenlooper opposed it, as did Denver’s mayor, and newspaper editorial boards shied away. “Don’t break out the Cheetos and Goldfish too quickly,” Hickenlooper snarked after the vote, noting that marijuana remained illegal under federal law.

But then something strange happened. At a time when Washington is crippled by partisan squabbling and state governments are more polarized than ever, stakeholders in Colorado set aside the divisions of the campaign and set to carrying out the public’s will. “Regardless of what their viewpoint was, everyone wanted to make this work in the best way possible,” says Barbara Brohl, Colorado’s top marijuana regulator, who won’t say whether she supported the law. “We kind of took politics out of it.”

Despite his reservations about the idea, Hickenlooper set up a task force to make it work, chaired by Brohl and Jack Finlaw, the governor’s top lawyer. “The governor came along quite reluctantly,” says Sam Kamin, a law professor at the University of Denver and member of the implementation task force. But once the amendment passed, Kamin adds, Hickenlooper “did nothing to stand in the way. The governor said we’re not going to relitigate this.”

The task force held meetings all over the Front Range, seeking input on issues ranging from advertising restrictions to child safety. The Democratic-controlled legislature, working with the support of law enforcement officials, passed measures to heavily tax sales and earmark the first $40 million in revenue toward school construction. A passel of legal and policy experts hustled through the process of building a regulatory framework, borrowing heavily from a 2010 measure that regulated the state’s existing medical marijuana market. And marijuana activists made pragmatic concessions—from product caps to packaging restrictions to perks for existing medical-marijuana businesses—that helped smooth divisions. “They were able to persuade their brethren in the medical marijuana industry to come on board with those reforms rather than to be oppositional,” says Allen St. Pierre, the executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

As they scrambled to iron out the kinks ahead of a Jan. 1 rollout, known here as “Green Wednesday,” Colorado officials had the heady task of anticipating the potential pitfalls of an untried experiment. If it succeeds, it could mark the beginning of the end of the era of pot prohibition; if it flops, Colorado could become a cautionary tale. “This was uncharted territory. We were definitely the first in the world,” Brohl says. And activists and regulators were conscious of how their perch as pot pioneers carried responsibilities. “We are in a fishbowl,” Brohl says. “We know that everybody is watching and we take that responsibility very seriously.”

The Centennial State isn’t the only one that is experimenting with looser drug laws. After decades of failed drug policy, and with nationwide support for legalization rising to 58% in one recent poll, 20 U.S. states, plus the District of Columbia, now allow medical marijuana sales. Some municipalities have decriminalized possession. Washington State is preparing to roll out its own retail cannabis shops, likely sometime this summer, and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is reportedly preparing to announce later this week an executive order to allow limited use of medical marijuana in the Empire State. Measures to legalize pot sales will be on the ballot in several more states in 2014 and 2016, including possibly California. Representatives from Uruguay, Britain, Chile and Brazil have all consulted Colorado experts how to assemble a regulatory framework. Sederberg was among several Colorado marijuana experts who traveled last fall to Montevideo for days of meetings with Uruguay’s cabinet before its legal cannabis market debuts.

It seems inevitable that some problems will materialize. Supporters of Colorado’s marijuana industry fret about heavy taxes and high prices, the potential of dwindling supply, overregulation, and the specter of intervention from the federal government. A car accident involving a stoned driver, use by minors or pot tourists carrying their product across state lines could all tarnish the rollout. Then there is the biggest concern: a lack of access to banking services that has forced legal pot businesses to operate mostly in cash, both a legal and safety hazard. “We’re not going to get it 100% right the first time,” Kamin cautions.

But a few days into Colorado’s big experiment, there are few, if any, major failures to point to. And so, as darkness descended on Jan. 3, a few dozen industry insiders gathered at a Mexican restaurant in Denver’s Capitol Hill neighborhood for a marijuana fundraiser. Business owners and lobbyists sipped margaritas, hobnobbed with state legislators and swapped tales from a wild opening week.

“This isn’t primarily a political movement anymore,” explains Taylor West, the incoming deputy director of the National Cannabis Industry Association. “It’s becoming a thriving industry.”