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By Keith Coffman
DENVER, Jan 1 (Reuters) - The world's first state-licensed marijuana retailers legally permitted to sell pot for recreational use opened for business in Colorado on Wednesday with long lines of customers, marking a new chapter in America's drug culture.
Roughly three dozen former medical marijuana dispensaries newly cleared by state regulators to sell pot to consumers interested in nothing more than its mind- and mood-altering properties began welcoming customers as early as 8 a.m. MST (1500 GMT).
Hundreds of patrons, some from distant states and many huddling outside in the bitter cold and snow for hours, cued up to be among the first buyers.
"This is an historic moment," Jacob Elliott, 31, a defense contractor from Leesburg, Virginia, near Washington, D.C., said in line outside the 3D Cannabis Center in Denver. "I never thought it would happen."
The highly-anticipated New Year's Day opening launched an unprecedented commercial cannabis market that Colorado officials expect will ultimately gross $578 million in annual revenues, including $67 million in tax receipts for the state.
Possession, cultivation and private personal consumption of marijuana by adults for the sake of just getting high has already been legal in Colorado for more than a year under a state constitutional amendment approved by voters.
As of Wednesday, however, cannabis was being legally produced, sold and taxed in a system modeled after a regime many states have in place for alcohol sales - but which exists for marijuana nowhere in the world outside of Colorado.
Even in the Netherlands, where some coffee shops and nightclubs are widely known to sell cannabis products with the informal consent of authorities, back-end distribution of the drug to those businesses remains illegal.
Customer No. 1 at Botana Care in the Denver suburb of Northglenn was Jesse Phillips, 32, an assembly-line worker who had camped outside the shop since 1 a.m.
"I wanted to be one of the first to buy pot and no longer be prosecuted for it. This end of prohibition is long overdue," Phillips said.
A cheer from about 100 fellow customers as Phillips made his purchase, an eighth-ounce sampler pack containing four strains of weed - labeled with names such as "King Tut Kush" and "Gypsy Girl" - that sold for $45 including tax.
He also bought a child-proof carry pouch required by state regulations to transport his purchase out of the store.
Back at 3D Cannabis, two patrons from Blanchester, Ohio, - Brandon Harris and his friend Tyler Williams, both 24 - said they had been waiting since 2:30 a.m. for doors to open.
"We wanted to be the first people from Ohio to buy it legally," Harris said.
Robin Hackett, 51, co-owner of Botana Care, said she expected between 800 to 1,000 first-day customers, and hired a private security firm to help with any traffic and parking issues that might arise.
Two inspectors from the Colorado Department of Revenue were on site as the shop was set to open. "We're just here to help with compliance issues," one of them, Dave Miller said.
Hackett said she has 50 lbs (23 kg) of product on hand, and to avoid a supply shortage the shop will limit purchases to quarter-ounces on Wednesday, including joints, raw buds, cannabis-infused edibles such as pastries or candies, and even infused soaps, oils and lotions.
Like other stores, Botana Care also stocked related wares, including pipes, rolling papers and bongs.
Voters in Washington state voted to legalize marijuana at the same time Colorado did, in November 2012, but Washington is not slated to open its first retail establishments until later in 2014.
Still, supporters and detractors alike see the two Western states as setting a course that could mark the beginning of the end for marijuana prohibition at the national level.
"The era of marijuana prohibition is officially over in Colorado," said Mason Tvert, a spokesman for the pro-legalization Marijuana Policy Project.
"Making marijuana legal for adults is not an experiment," he told a news conference. "Prohibition was the experiment and the results were abysmal."
He and other supporters of the change point to tax revenues to be gained and argue that anti-marijuana enforcement has accomplished little over the years but to penalize otherwise law-abiding citizens, especially minorities.
Critics say anticipated social harms of legalization, from declines in economic productivity to a rise in traffic and workplace accidents, outweigh any benefits.
They also warn that legalizing recreational use could help create an industry intent on attracting underage users and getting more people dependent on the drug.
Cannabis remains classified as an illegal narcotic under federal law, though the Obama administration has said it will give individual states leeway to carry out their own recreational-use statutes.
Nearly 20 states, including Colorado and Washington, had already put themselves at odds with the U.S. government by approving marijuana for medical purposes.
Comparing the nascent pot market to the alcohol industry, former U.S. Representative Patrick Kennedy, co-founder of Project Smart Approaches to Marijuana, said his group aims to curtail marijuana advertising and to help push local bans on the drug while the industry is still modest in stature.
"This is a battle that if we catch it early enough we can prevent some of the most egregious adverse impacts that have happened as a result of the commercialized market that promotes alcohol use to young people," he said.
Under Colorado law, however, state residents can buy as much as an ounce (28 grams) of marijuana at a time, while out-of-state visitors are restricted to quarter-ounce purchases.
Restraint was certainly the message being propagated on New Year's Eve by Colorado authorities, who posted signs at Denver International Airport and elsewhere around the capital warning that pot shops can only operate during approved hours, and that open, public consumption of marijuana remains illegal. (Writing and additional reporting by Steve Gorman; Editing by Dan Whitcomb, Lisa Shumaker, Barbara Goldberg and Chris Reese)