In the late 1800s, it was a coal mining boomtown once frequented by infamous Old West characters like Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp. In the late 1900s, it was known as the “Sex Change Capital of the World” due to the large number of gender reassignment procedures being performed in town at the time. Today, it might as well change its official slogan to “Weed Town, USA.”
After experiencing a steep economic decline in recent years following the continued loss of industrial jobs to the area, Trinidad, Colorado, was saved by an unlikely source: marijuana.
No Longer a Ghost Town
“Before marijuana came here, the town was dead,” says Nick Cordova, owner of local restaurant Frontier BBQ and partner in the town’s “420-friendly” Frontier Motel. “Half the population was gone. Half the town was abandoned. Half the downtown buildings were abandoned and run down. Without weed, half this town wouldn’t be here. Literally.”
A High Times analysis of statistics from the Colorado Department of Revenue’s Marijuana Enforcement Division found that with 23 licensed retail dispensaries servicing a town of approximately 8,100 residents located 13 miles north of the New Mexico border, Trinidad currently has one dispensary per 352 residents. By comparison, this is over 10 times the number of more well-known stoner paradises like Boulder or Denver.
In one downtown block alone along Commercial Street, there are eight dispensaries in a section of town some locals jokingly refer to as the Trinidad “weed mall.” There are four times as many pot shops in town as there are bars, according to Cordova. Yet despite the large number of dispensaries in town, Cordova says all the businesses related to the local marijuana boom are thriving.
“It’s about the only sustainable industry in the town at this point,” says Cordova. “There’s no factories, there’s no manufacturing, there’s no industry. There’s weed. It’s the lifeline of the town. Everyone works in weed. There’s no other jobs here. Everybody works for a weed shop or works for a grower or works for a supplier. There’s nothing but weed in Trinidad.”
While there are of course a number of other jobs besides weed in town, his point is well taken. It is something the town is well aware of as it tries to diversify its economy. If the weed boom does at some point go bust due to legalization in nearby states or a federal crackdown, it won’t leave the town busted as it has so many times in Trinidad’s haunted past.
“All of us who’ve opened businesses here have thrived,” says Cordova, who himself moved to Trinidad two years ago from Texas to take part in the town’s rapidly expanding green rush. He says the population has roughly doubled since weed came to reinvigorate the local economy in 2014, with half the residents made up of recent transplants from other states like California and Texas who came to town to work in weed. “If people weren’t coming into town for pot, we wouldn’t have a business. If they did away with [pot] tomorrow, I’d have to close up shop.”
Prime Real Estate
Located just off the interstate about halfway between Denver and Santa Fe, the town’s proximity to the New Mexico border plays a huge role in its popularity amongst marijuana aficionados. Justin Long, store manager at local dispensary M+M Distributing, says that over 95% of the shop’s business comes from out of state customers. Of “a couple hundred” sales the store makes per day, he says around “five or six” are made to in-state consumers, adding that most locals just grow their own thanks to state law which permits residents 21 and over to grow up to six plants for home cultivation. “It’s definitely brought this town back to life,” he says, adding that the shop’s sales have “gone up every year” since legalization.
On any given day, you will see the newly thriving downtown lined with cars displaying out of state plates from nearby non-legal states like Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Nebraska, New Mexico, and others. Due to Colorado’s isolation as the only state in its region in which marijuana is legal, the out-of-state traffic is significantly more pronounced here than on the coasts where legal states are more bunched together. Trinidad, in particular, benefits from being the only local municipality in Colorado where weed is currently legal of significant size located off a major highway that close to one of the state’s borders. By comparison, according to Herb.co, the most stoned city in California is Shasta Lake which, with one pot shop per 1,731 people, still trails far behind Trinidad’s ever-thickening smoke cloud.
Trinidad City Manager Greg Sund says the five percent tax from marijuana sales brought in $2.5 million of the town’s $13 million general fund last year, with some of those general fund dollars also resulting from marijuana sales generated as part of the $5 million collected in overall sales and use taxes, where pot revenue is grouped together with all other sales. While he says that measuring marijuana on a per capita basis is a “terrible metric” for a border community, there’s no denying the massive change marijuana has brought to the town since legalization took effect in 2014.
Brian Kirk, night manager at Trinidad Harvesting Company, one of five grow operations in the area, recalls Memorial Day weekend in Trinidad three years ago. “The town was dead,” he recalls. “The only thing open was an ice cream shop on a Sunday at four in the afternoon.” Today, the downtown is buzzing with activity and “you get the sense that there’s just a really positive attitude in town,” says Sund. “We’re having more and more people show interest in the town. You can just feel it in town. Marijuana is having a substantial effect on the number of people in town.”
On the revenue front, Trinidad’s county (Las Animas County) has everyone in the state beat by a mile as well. According to sales figures from the Department of Marijuana Enforcement, Las Animas County brought in $298 in sales per resident in March 2018, with Denver bringing in $49 and Boulder $22. (In total, the state brought in over $247 million in pot tax revenue on a record $1.5 billion in sales in 2017.)
Sund says marijuana revenue has helped Trinidad pay for long-delayed, much-needed capital improvements for residents and spruce up the streets to help attract visitors. With the highest concentration of historic buildings in Colorado (143 dating back as far as the 1800s) and six miles of red brick streets — in addition to serene mountains and plenty of natural beauty surrounding the town — Trinidad has much to smile about these days besides weed-induced grins.
According to Sund, the town has used some of its marijuana revenue to create more affordable housing and has been attracting an influx of artists, with the town’s new “Artspace” project transforming an entire city block on Main Street into work/live space for “creatives” and lower-income artist types. Cordova adds that the weed boom has brought in a range of new satellite businesses as well like coffee houses, print shops and a new tech business to service dispensary computer systems, in addition to a number of new restaurants like his. (Two years ago, his was the only BBQ restaurant in town. Today, there are four.)
But it took weed to get people to start noticing Trinidad’s long-neglected charms once hidden beneath decades of economic decay. These days, many people who roll into town to pick up some of Colorado’s legal green stick around for a while and stay in a local hotel for a weed-fueled weekend of fun, with some deciding never to leave a town which is skewing younger by the day thanks to all the new arrivals. “It’s more upbeat,” Long says of the town these days. “The hotels are full, new restaurants are popping up. It’s bringing a better quality of life and people are staying.” This brings up the downside of the town’s marijuana boom, with marijuana contributing to a lack of available housing and an increase in the transient population. There has also been a significant rise in border arrests in neighboring states.
Homelessness is a problem in Trinidad, with panhandlers often seen outside dispensaries and a sharp rise in “transient problems,” according to the Trinidad Police Department. (Sund is hesitant to attribute this rise in homelessness to marijuana, noting that it is part of an overall trend.) According to police stats provided to High Times, so-called “transient problems” — which the police department describes as non-crime related calls for minor disturbances like people sleeping in the park — jumped from a total of seven in the two full years before weed was legalized in 2014 to a whopping 258 in the two full years immediately following legalization.
Bracing for the Future
Yet Trinidad has not experienced any significant uptick in crime since legalization (with DUI arrests also down sharply in recent years), and Cordova says the transient issue is a small price to pay for all the good that marijuana has brought to the city. “It’s not gonna all be positive,” he says, adding that police in this “very laid back” town have not arrested a single person on a marijuana-related crime since legalization. He says some “old timers” are still resistant to the change brought about by the now-dominant pot leaf, but no one can deny that life has gotten a hell of a lot better for most of Trinidad since weed came to town.
Cordova says the city is bracing for possible legalization in New Mexico, which could come as early as 18 months from now and would, he says, cut the marijuana business in Trinidad roughly by half. “It’s a matter of time until they do,” he says of border state legalization. “It’s a matter of time before everyone does. The money is too crazy.”
Until then, the Trinidad weed boom continues unabated. The town has recently published its first-ever travel guide geared to tourism, calling Trinidad “the gem of Southeastern Colorado” while promoting the state’s “most preserved and historic” downtown (there is no mention of weed in the brochure). “They’ll keep coming,” says Cordova of new weed-related businesses in the future. “It’s there for the taking for anyone who wants to come and open a legitimate business.”
Featured Image: Photo Courtesy of Greg Sund/City of Trinidad