DENVER (AP) — Long lines and blustery winter weather greeted Colorado marijuana shoppers testing the nation's first legal recreational pot shops Wednesday.
It was hard to tell from talking to the shoppers, however, that they had waited hours in snow and frigid wind.
"It's a huge deal for me," said Andre Barr, a 34-year-old deliveryman who drove from Niles, Mich., to be part of the legal weed experiment. "This wait is nothing."
The world was watching as Colorado unveiled the modern world's first fully legal marijuana industry — no doctor's note required (as in 18 states and Washington, D.C.) and no unregulated production of the drug (as in the Netherlands). Uruguay has fully legalized pot but hasn't yet set up its system.
Colorado had 24 shops open Wednesday, most of them in Denver, and aside from long lines and sporadic reports of shoppers cited for smoking pot in public, there were few problems.
"Everything's gone pretty smoothly," said Barbara Brohl, Colorado's top marijuana regulator as head of the Department of Revenue.
The agency sent its new marijuana inspectors to recreational shops to monitor sales and make sure sellers understood the state's new marijuana-tracking inventory system meant to keep legal pot out of the black market.
Denver International Airport erected signs warning travelers that they could not take marijuana home with them.
Keeping pot within Colorado's regulated system and within the state's borders are among requirements the U.S. Department of Justice has laid out to avoid a clampdown under federal law, which still outlaws the drug.
The other state that has legalizes recreational pot, Washington, will face the same restrictions when its retail shops start operating, expected by late spring.
The states' retail experiments are crucial tests of whether marijuana can be sold like alcohol, kept from children and highly taxed, or whether pot proves too harmful to public health and safety for legalization experiments to expand elsewhere.
"This feels like freedom at last," said Amy Reynolds, owner of two Colorado Springs medical pot shops. Reynolds came to Denver to toast the dawn of pot sales for recreational use. "It's a plant, it's harmless, and now anyone over 21 can buy it if they want to. Beautiful."
Marijuana skeptics, of course, watched in alarm. They warned that the celebratory vibe in Colorado masked dangerous consequences. Wider marijuana availability, they say, would lead to greater illegal use by youth, and possibly more traffic accidents and addiction problems.
"It's not just a benign recreational drug that we don't have to worry about," said Dr. Paula Riggs, head of the Division of Substance Dependence at the University of Colorado-Denver medical campus.
The only problems reported Wednesday, though, were long lines and high prices. Some shops raised prices or reduced purchasing limits as the day went on. One pot shop closed early because of tight supply. Some shoppers complained they were paying three times more than they were used to.
Colorado has no statewide pricing structure, and by midafternoon, one dispensary was charging $70 for one-eighth of an ounce of high-quality pot. Medical marijuana patients just a day earlier paid as little as $25 for the same amount.
Medical pot users worried they'd be priced out of the market. Colorado's recreational pot inventory came entirely from the drug's supply for medical uses.
"We hope that the focus on recreational doesn't take the focus away from patients who really need this medicine," said Laura Kriho of the patient advocacy group Cannabis Therapy Institute.
Colorado has hundreds of pending applications for recreational pot retailers, growers and processors. So it's too soon to say how prices would change more people enter the business, increasing supply and competition.
Shoppers waiting in line Wednesday didn't seem fazed by the wait, the prices, or the state and local taxes that totaled more than 25 percent.
"This is quality stuff in a real store. Not the Mexican brick weed we're used to back in Ohio," said Brandon Harris, who drove from Blanchester, Ohio.
The price of oil fell below $98 a barrel Thursday amid reduced trading volumes and the impact of a strengthening dollar.
By early afternoon in Europe, benchmark oil for February delivery was down 72 cents to $97.70 on the New York Mercantile Exchange. On Tuesday, the Nymex contract fell 87 cents to close the year at $98.42. Markets were closed Wednesday for New Year's Day.
The Nymex contract gained 7 percent in 2013 on hopes for stronger demand in the coming months pegged to the signs of a recovery in the U.S., which is expected to help revive other major global economies.
The brighter prospects for the U.S. economy have also helped boost the dollar over the past few trading sessions. A stronger dollar tends to push down oil prices by making crude more expensive for buyers using other currencies.
"Further improvement in the U.S. economy should be supportive of the U.S. dollar and that will continue to play against oil demand in emerging markets," said Olivier Jakob, an analyst at Petromatrix in Switzerland. He highlighted recent protests in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, against rising gasoline prices.
On Thursday, the euro was down 0.7 percent against the dollar, at $1.3647.
Meanwhile, traders are monitoring data on supplies. The industry-funded American Petroleum Institute reported late Tuesday that U.S. crude stockpiles fell 5.7 million barrels the week ended Dec. 27. The report from the Energy Department's Energy Information Administration — the market benchmark — will be out on Friday.
A survey by Platts, the energy information arm of McGraw-Hill Cos., showed analysts are expecting a draw of 1.5 million barrels in crude stocks.
While the Nymex contract rose above $100 last week for the first time since October, trading volumes on Thursday were around half of usual levels.
"Volume should remain low in crude oil futures until Monday," Jakob said. "The short-term momentum is disappearing."
Brent crude, a benchmark used to price international crudes used by many U.S. refiners, was down $1.29 to $109.51 on the ICE Futures exchange in London.
Disruptions in oil production and exports in Libya and South Sudan were keeping a floor under the Brent price, which was also affected by the dollar's rise.
In other energy futures trading:
— Wholesale gasoline was down 3.51 cents to $2.7508 a gallon.
— Natural gas futures added 4.7 cents to $4.277 per 1,000 cubic feet.
— Heating oil lost 4.63 cents to $3.0189 a gallon.
SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — After a troubled rollout, President Barack Obama's health care overhaul now faces its most personal test: How will it work as people seek care under its new mandates?
Most major pieces of the Affordable Care Act take full effect with the new year. That means people who had been denied coverage because of a pre-existing medical condition can book appointments and get prescriptions.
Caps on yearly out-of-pocket medical expenses will mean people shouldn't have to worry about bankruptcy after treatment for a catastrophic illness or injury. And all new insurance policies must offer a minimum level of essential benefits, ranging from emergency room treatment to maternity care.
The law's benefits apply to individual policies as well as those offered through employers.
But one benefit didn't take effect as expected after Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor late Tuesday night temporarily blocked the part of the law requiring some religious-affiliated organizations to provide their workers with insurance that includes birth control. Government officials have until Friday to respond to her emergency stay.
Administration officials said this week that 2.1 million consumers have enrolled through the federal and state-run health insurance exchanges that are a central feature of the Affordable Care Act. Millions more have been enrolled in Medicaid, after the federal law allowed states to expand the health insurance program for the poor.
Yet how many of those who signed up for coverage on the exchanges will follow through and pay their premiums will not be known for a couple of weeks. People who signed up on the federal website have until Jan. 10 to pay premiums for coverage retroactive to Jan. 1, while consumers in some states have until Jan. 6.
Those who enrolled during the exchanges' first three months, persisting through serious technological problems and jammed call center phone lines, are probably motivated to make sure they have a policy in place as soon as possible, said Anthony Wright, executive director of Health Access California, which advocates for lower-income people and supports the federal health care changes.
"These are people who made a point of signing up and signing up before the deadline so they could start on Jan. 1. That suggests to me that that will be a population that is more likely to follow through with the payment," he said.
Premiums paid after the deadline will be applied to coverage starting Feb. 1 or later. Consumers have until March 31 to sign up in time to avoid a federal tax penalty for remaining uninsured. That fine starts at $95 for an individual this year but climbs rapidly, to a minimum of $695 by 2016. There is an additional fine for parents who do not get health insurance for their children.
Although the federal website is apparently fixed for consumers, the start of the year still could bring plenty of confusion.
Insurers say they are receiving thousands of erroneous sign-up applications from the government, and some people who thought they had enrolled for coverage have not received confirmation. Undoubtedly, some will find out they don't have the immediate coverage they thought they did.
Some states, including Minnesota and Rhode Island, extended their sign-up period until the final day of 2013, leading to a last-minute crush of paperwork for insurers. Call center wait times in Minnesota extended beyond two hours on Tuesday, a possible sign of heavy consumer interest.
Anticipating disruptions, major drug store chains such as CVS and Walgreens have announced they will help customers who face coverage questions, even providing temporary supplies of medications without insisting on up-front payment. Many smaller independent pharmacies also are ready to help.
Some parts of the Affordable Care Act took effect previously, such as the ability of young people to remain on their parents' insurance policies until age 26.
Others have been delayed until 2015, including the law's requirement that companies with 50 or more workers must provide affordable coverage or pay fines. The administration says it's trying to iron out burdensome reporting requirements.