Pubdate: Thu, 24 Mar 2016
Source: Buffalo News (NY)
Copyright: 2016 The Buffalo News
Author: Jack Healy, New York Times


As Colorado Coal Declines, Leaders Look to Pot Revenue

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 Washington, D.C., 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 growhouse 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.

Like other supporters of marijuana sales, Winne said that while pot 
was no panacea, at least it could perk up business and tax revenues. 
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, 
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.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom