Anthonie Mattie, a retired state patrolman-turned-mayor pro tem stares at empty buildings with his reflection bouncing back from empty glass storefront windows. The streets are lined with century-old fences, but empty, except for a few cars slowly passing through the town of Trinidad, Colorado.
Mattie, however, maintains a sparkle in his eye and a smile as he shares a plan to revive this town – thanks to the marijuana industry.
“The abandoned Pepsi plant became a marijuana dispensary. People resurrected these buildings that were about to fall and collapse,” he says.
This is in large part thanks to the marijuana tax that brought in $800,000 revenue to be used.
This “green gold” is bringing hope back to this once-booming coal mining town in rural southeast Colorado, 11 miles from the New Mexico border, where generations of Mattie’s family have lived. Residents pride themselves on the town’s pioneer reputation and Wild West spirit.
“This is the place mere Bat Masterson was the marshal. This is where Jesse James’ gang did run. This is the place where Doc Holiday was a dentist and owned a brothel. This is the place, says Cy Michaels, a hotel owner and leader of the town’s tourism board.
The town was also home to one of the first places in the nation that made gender reassignment surgery available, earning it the unofficial title of “sex change capitals of the world” in the early 2000s.
However, the doctor left, mines shut their entrances and business closed down, leaving the town searching for a new identity. It then turned to marijuana, hoping the fill the gap in its economy.
Compared with 30,000 residents in its prime, there are only 8,200 now. Mattie and others hope marijuana dispensaries, grow facilities and a high-scale chocolate edibles company can be a shot in the arm.
“I expect that the sale of medical and recreational marijuana in the city of Trinidad is transitional,” Mattie says. “That it gets us over this abyss of nothingness.”
The town is in many instances an experiment that other cities across the country is watching. They’re only starting to see the pros, cons and questions that comes with a small town giving weed the all-clear.
Stream of revenue
The town slowly moved into the controversial legal marijuana industry, waiting and only allowing medical marijuana businesses at first.
“It’s like tipping your toe in the water, testing the water,” Mattie says. “And we said, ‘Alright, this is not the big problem we maybe thought it could be.'”
In November 2014 the first recreational pot shop opened in Trinidad and the cash flow was beyond expectations.
According to City Manager Gabe England, the $800,000 in tax revenue from marijuana sales makes up just about 10% of the town’s general fund. Mattie says they anticipated only about $200,000.
The transformation of the town finally began. With the marijuana tax, the city spend$70,000 on a new fire engine, a pumper track. Some of the money allowed the city to expedite replacing old water pipes.
“About 60% of our water pipes were installed between 1890 and 1950,” Engeland says. “They’re edging towards catastrophic failure.”
The city bought several rundown buildings in the heart of town with plans to convert them into live-work lofts and galleries, to attract artists and craftspeople to Trinidad.
The money’s making a difference for this struggling town and a trend is becoming visible all across the state.
Nearly $50 million in marijuana taxes will go toward new school and construction projects. Colorado reported nearly $1 billion in legal marijuana sales, a 40% increase from 2014. Sales for the first few months in 2016 are already outpacing last year’s records.
The good and bad
At CannaCo, one of the eight pot dispensaries in Trinidad, a slow stream of customers stops in the parking lot on a monday afternoon, many of whom have out-of-state license plates.
It’s the first pot shop drivers encounter as the head north from New mixico on Interstate 25.
“It’s just kind of an ideal spot to capture tourism coming in to the state,” General Manager Josh Bleem says, “We get a lot of folks from Texas, New Mexico, Oklahome and Arizona. Probably 85% of our business is out-of-state coming in.”
Bleem says his shop sees between 100 and 300 customers a day.
Michaels, owner of the La Quinta Inn and Suites, says she says on any nihhy “5 to 10% of rooms that are marijuana driven”.
She’s seem a jump in people aged 70 and over coming to Trinidad, in part, because of pot. While her rooms are smoke-free, she allows residents to smoke outside. Other hotels have rooms blocked off for cannabus-consuming customers.
While many tourists are embraced in Trinidad, not everyone sees the extra people and pot-cash infusion as a good things.
“I personally can’t fina a positive,” says Carolyn Dillow. She and her husband own a Big-O tires franchise in town.
Dillow points to a man holding a sign near their property and blames pot for an increased number of panhanflers. There is the start of a makeshift campsite near the CannaCo dispensary, she says.
The city manager says more people have needed social services, but he can’t say how much is attributed to marijuana business.
“I don’t think families who want to raise children are attracted to the community,” Dillow says. “I have personally seen and experienced a lot of increase in homeless people and also in crime and violence in the community as a result of marijuana coming in, or at least that’s my feelings.”
Trinidad crime statistics from 2014 to 2015 show no significan increase in major crimes. In fact, the number of burglaries decreased. Drug manufacture and possession arrests were slightly up. Pot-related crime reports were down. DUI citations were significantly lower, dropping from 59 in 2015 to 29 in 2015.
Colorado State Patrol shows a decrease in total DUI’s year-to-year statewide. However, the percentage of DUI’s specifically involving pot increased by about 20%. Officials warn it maybe too soon to draw conclusion since they never keep track of marijuana-specific stats before the drug was legalized.
Mattie, who worked as a state patrol officer for 28 years, remains conflicted.
“The idea of marijuana as a benefit, it just flew in the face of everything I was ever about”, he says. “But you can’t learn anything with a closed mind.”
The economic boost from the pot industry has been undeniable, but city leaders wonder about its sustainability as more states are legalizing the plant.
“Trinidad, the sad part of its history is the boom and bust. We create bubbles and when the good times are good, they’re great. But then there’s long periods of — how do we recover?” Engeland says.
So far; twenty-four states have legalized medical marijuana. Four states and the District of Columbia have approved recreational use and sale of marijuana, even though it is still federally illicit. Several more states could make the move toward marijuana legalization during the November ballot.
“As surrounding states now embrace the idea of embracing marijuana, the novelty of Colorado selling legal marijuana is going to dissipate,” Mattie says. “In a short while, there’s not going to be as much money to be made.”
Mattie’s fear is one company’s biggest hope.
Inside a 30,000 square foot warehouse in Trinidad’s first marijuana edibles manufacturing company. CODA Signature’s commercial kitchen smells like a miniature Willy Wonka-esque factory.
A dozen employees carefully craft tray after tray of eye-catching cannabis-infused chocolate truffles. Co-founder and CEO, Mark Grindeland, hopes to distribute them nationwide someday.
“I think it’s only a matter of time before those states come on,” Grindeland says. “The genie is out of the bottle.”
CODA’s chocolatiers come up with exciting, new and uique flavor combinations, like Juniper Lemon, Passion Fruit Szechuan, Burn Caramel and Tiramisu – in hopes of bringing something gourmet to the marijuana industry.
CODA’s head chocolatier Lauren Gockley moved from New York, where she ran the dessert section at Thomas Keller’s famous restaurant Per Se. Grindeland beams with pride noting Gockley was named one of the top chocolatiers in North America in 2011.
“I saw a an opportunity to do what I love and saw an opening in the industry that really hadn’t seen the type of products that I make,” Gockley explains, her eyes filling with tears.
Gockley and rindeland believe a huge growth opportunity lies ahead.
“People have asked me, if they used a metaphor like a baseball game, ‘What inning are we in?’ And I would say we haven’t even started the game. We’re warming up right now,” says Grindeland.
Decriminalizing marijuana on a federal level would allow this community to take part in interstate commerce.
Grindeland, an experienced entrepreneur who successfully launched three previous startups, hesitates before answering questions about financial projections.
“Within five years we’ll be north of $100 million in revenue,” he says.
If that happens, Trinidad also stands to benefit.
CODA has 13 employees. Grindekabd expects to hire nearly 30 more this year when he adds a grow operation and THC oil extraction component to the business.
The thought of more jobs, more tax revenue and more investment trickling down to the town makes Mattie cautiously optimistic about the town’s future. However, he stops short of suggesting the marijuana industry is some kind of savior to the town.
“Save is a strong word. Help is a better word,” Mattie says. “But whenever I have an opportunity to talk about my hometown, and what I want it to be, and what I remember it to be, and what I’m hoping it will be, I get very energized. I get very enthused.”
“And if marijuana is the tool that helps us do that, so be it. But I don’t see it to be the big monster that first we feared.”