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


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's 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.

Ms. 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."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom