With Coal In Decline, Colorado Community Revisits Marijuana Ban

Mar 30, 2016

State Highway 92 runs through downtown Hotchkiss, Colo.
Credit Flickr via Jeffrey Beall

As coal mining continues to decline in Delta County, communities are struggling. People are moving away. The school district is losing students. Unemployment remains high. 

In the small town of Hotchkiss, some see marijuana as a way to bring in much needed revenue and think it’s time to reconsider the local ban.  

In the upcoming April municipal election, Hotchkiss voters face three questions.

Should medical marijuana businesses be allowed in town?

Should the community open its doors to the recreational marijuana industry? 

"And the third one of course is the whole tax thing," says Hotchkiss Board of Trustee Tom Wills. "Should we be allowed to tax the marijuana? Which is the point of the whole thing."

Wills helped get the issue on the ballot. 

A sign in front of a gift shop in Hotchkiss, Colo. urging residents to vote in favor of the marijuana ballot measures.
Credit laura palmisano / KVNF

"We already have marijuana in the community. We have all the impacts of having marijuana in the community, but we we're not getting any of the benefits."

Wills says those benefits include tax revenue, jobs and tourism.

Mary Hockenbery, who runs a local art gallery, sees that economic need too. She’s the one who spearheaded the movement.

"I’ve seen the same vacant buildings down on Bridge Street for years," she says.

 Hockenbery thinks a retail pot store would help. 

"People passing through would stop for marijuana shops and spend money at other businesses," she says.

On The Other Side

We need industry that appeals to all, not just drug users.

Opponents don’t debate the need for new businesses. They just don’t want pot business.

"We need industry that appeals to all, not just drug users," says Jake Defield, a local Baptist pastor.

He worries about children getting access to marijuana and people driving under the influence of the drug. 

Hotchkiss Mayor Wendell Koontz shares those concerns.

"I still think it’s a gateway drug," says Koontz. "It’s still a class A, federally prohibited drug." 

Residents like Linda Driscoll don't want to see the town change. 

"We’ve always been a pretty conservative little town," says Driscoll. "I realize things are changing, but I just don’t...want it [to]."

Not The Only One

Hotchkiss isn’t the first small community to struggle with this issue. A similar debate cropped up just 80 miles away. 

DeBeque was a town dependent on the energy industry. 

When the boom went bust, voters narrowly approved marijuana business.

"It was probably lucky for the community that the vote did pass," says DeBeque Administrator Lance Stewart. "We have not seen any real adverse impacts that can be documented from the operation of the couple of stores that are presently here in the community."

He says in fact, the revenue that the industry has brought in allowed the town to go from one police officer to four. There’s even money to build sidewalks and make other improvements.

Back in Hotchkiss, Trustee Wills wants the measures to pass so the town will see similar benefits.

The advantage, he says, is that it doesn’t tax locals, because it’s not locals who will frequent pot shops.

"Like I say, around here, the joke is if you can’t get marijuana for free then you don’t have the right friends," says Wills.

He isn’t sure how the election will go. He knows the town needs some kind of economic boost, and says pot might be the answer.