Marijuana Business May Emerge in Colorado Town after Being Suppressed by Now-Fading Coal Industry

Saturday, March 26, 2016
Colorado's struggling Oxbow Coal Mine (photo: RJ Sangostim, Denver Post/Getty Images)

By Jack Healy, New York Times


HOTCHKISS, Colo. — This mountain town of coal miners and organic farmers wasted no time in saying no to marijuana. After Colorado’s 2012 vote legalizing marijuana, local leaders concerned about crime and the character of their tranquil downtown twice voted to ban the recreational and medical pot shops springing up in other towns.


But then coal crumbled. One mine here in the North Fork Valley has shut down amid a wave of coal bankruptcies and slowdowns, and another has announced that it will go dark. The closings added to a landscape of layoffs and economic woes concussing mining-dependent towns from West Virginia to Wyoming. And as Hotchkiss searches for a new economic lifeline, some people are asking: What about marijuana?


“If we could get it legalized right now, we could create some jobs, and we need the tax revenue,” said Thomas Wills, a town trustee who runs a used-book store and supports allowing some marijuana stores. “Downtown’s not going to be all flashing green crosses and dancing marijuana leaves. You can make it as unobtrusive as you want.”


Next month, Hotchkiss will vote on whether to undo its ban and welcome marijuana shops and the traffic and taxes that could come with them. With cannabis sales soaring to nearly $1 billion across Colorado, and big states such as California poised to embrace legalization, wary towns like Hotchkiss are looking at the economics of marijuana and starting to reconsider.


“It’s an evolving discussion in a lot of communities,” said Kevin Bommer, deputy director of the Colorado Municipal League, which tracks local debates on the issue. Six Colorado towns are voting in April on whether to scrap their prohibitions on marijuana stores, and in January, another narrowly voted to lift a moratorium and approve wholesale marijuana growers.


Though 23 states and the District of Columbia now allow some forms of recreational or medical marijuana, legalization is still a checkerboard, with marijuana retailers and cultivations clustered in big cities such as Seattle or Washington and scattered randomly through rural areas.


As scores of cities and counties banned marijuana sales, they cited worries about public safety, property values, youth use and the image problems that might come with becoming their county’s go-to source for legal marijuana. Others passed moratoriums to wait and see how legalization unfolded in neighboring towns that plunged in.


“There were a lot of questions and unknowns,” said Mayor Joel Benson of Buena Vista, a town in Colorado’s central mountains that allows medical marijuana and is weighing whether to allow recreational sales. “It was really just to give people time to wrestle with the ins and outs.”


Places like Pierce County, south of Seattle, discovered that simply banning dispensaries did not keep out marijuana. In February 2015, the police shut down an illegal grow house next to a day care center in Gig Harbor. The County Council passed a series of what it called tight regulations, and in December repealed its ban on marijuana sales and production in unincorporated corners of the county.


Here in Hotchkiss, the push to allow marijuana has touched off conversations about the soul of the town. It is tucked into a sunny mountain valley draped with peach orchards and vineyards. But the coal mines up the valley were an economic mainstay for generations, and people say that tourism and boutique agriculture cannot replace good-paying mining jobs. Unemployment here in Delta County is 5.3 percent, higher than the statewide average of 3.2 percent.


“People have been tightening the belt or just plain moving away,” said Robbie Winne, who runs the Rose, a secondhand clothing shop along Hotchkiss’ main street. She said she supported the marijuana plan as a way to entice more visitors, or at least capture some traffic as people passed through on their way to ski towns.


Winne said that although pot was no panacea, at least it could perk up business and tax revenue. Colorado collected about $135 million in taxes and fees from marijuana sales last year, and small governments have taken in millions from local sales taxes. In the tiny town of DeBeque, near the Utah border, officials told Colorado Public Radio that they were considering using the tax money from marijuana to start a scholarship fund or repair streets, curbs and gutters.


Wendell Koontz, a coal-mine geologist and the mayor of Hotchkiss, said the price was not worth it. He said he worried about whether the three-person marshal’s office and small town staff could deal with the complications of new marijuana businesses, and about the reputation of a place that proclaims itself the “Friendliest Town Around.”


“There’s a concern that kind of atmosphere could be lost,” he said. “And once it’s gone, it’s gone.”


Others say it is time for a bold move. Mary Hockenbery, a New Mexico transplant who runs an eclectic art gallery in an old church, has been a leading voice behind the initiative. Coal is not coming back, she said, and though she and others have tried to spruce up the main street with cosmetic measures like new flower boxes, the town needs more.


“We’re dying,” she said. “This town needs an infusion of cash. Anything will help.”


To Learn More:

U.S. Coal Production Falls to Lowest Level in 30 Years (Associated Press)

Colorado Raises more Money from Marijuana Tax than from Alcohol Tax (by Noel Brinkerhoff and Steve Straehley, AllGov)

As Legal Marijuana Spreads, Will Big Business Muscle Out Small Providers? (by Steve Straehley, AllGov)

Marijuana Industry Begs to be Taxed (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

Taxing Marijuana Would Earn California $1.4 Billion (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)


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