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Marijuana fuels Trinidad's revival - and a rise in black market arrests in neighboring states

February 24, 2018 Updated: February 27, 2018 at 6:27 am
photo - A wide variety of the three main strains, sativa, indicia and hybrids that vary in their THC percentage being sold at The M&M Dispensary on Thursday February 22, 2018 in Trinidad. (Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette).
A wide variety of the three main strains, sativa, indicia and hybrids that vary in their THC percentage being sold at The M&M Dispensary on Thursday February 22, 2018 in Trinidad. (Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette). 

Trinidad should have a green cloud obscuring its vistas.

By numbers compiled by Colorado marijuana regulators, it's the most stoned city in the Rockies and possibly the planet, with nearly $300 in monthly recreational marijuana sales for every man, woman and child in Las Animas County.

While the city of 8,100 residents is selling marijuana at 15 times the clip of Boulder County, most of the weed is heading south on Interstate 25. It's part of a phenomenon that has drawn the ire of Colorado's neighboring states and has become the subject of a string of recent academic studies - legal marijuana illegally crossing state borders.

"Your legal market is still our black market," explained Ryan Spohn, who heads the Center for Justice Research at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and has studied how his state's marijuana arrests have spiked in counties that border Colorado.

Nebraska and Oklahoma filed suit against Colorado over the issue, in an effort that was turned back in 2016 by the U.S. Supreme Court.

"We believe that what Colorado has done is illegal and unconstitutional," Nebraska's Scotts Bluff County Sheriff Mark Overman argued. "We believe that the state of Nebraska and other states should bring legal action against Colorado. Their legalization of marijuana is in direct conflict with the Controlled Substances Act."

The reasons for concern are clear: Neighboring states have seen startling increases in marijuana possession arrests.

A recent Washington State University study found that marijuana arrests are up by a third in counties bordering Colorado. Spohn's Nebraska study says its pot possession arrests have nearly tripled in border counties since Colorado began with medical marijuana in 2000.

Law enforcement agencies as far away as Oklahoma City complain that Colorado-branded pot is winding up on their streets. They say its coming by car, truck, airplane and mail.

They say they're seeing small quantities of Colorado pot - ounces rather than tons - but the flow is far more frequent than the large busts in the past.

A study of Washington's legal marijuana showed that 11.9 percent of the legal crop was leaving the state illegally. If applied to Colorado's $1.51 billion in sales in 2017, that would mean $181 million in black market pot left the state last year. That's the same amount that Colorado Gives Day has raised for charity since 2010.

The reason it's headed across borders is easy to understand: The Drug Enforcement Agency estimates that an ounce of marijuana that sells for $99 in Colorado could fetch $350 in another state.

A woman is seen walking downtown at the intersection of Main St., and Commercial St., in the city of Trinidad on Thursday February 22, 2018. (Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette). 

'Marijuana mecca'

No place in America can show the phenomena quite like Trinidad, now home to 21 marijuana shops.

Just a few miles north of New Mexico, Trinidad was loaded with tourists on a Thursday afternoon. Cars from Kansas, Texas, New Mexico and Oklahoma crowd a Main Street you could safely fire a cannon down on any given afternoon a few years ago.

"There's more pot shops than bars," said local locksmith Rick Klebba. "It's all out-of state customers."

Klebba, like many Trinidad residents, is suspicious of the boom. It's almost too much prosperity for a town that's tumbled bust-to-bust since the Dust Bowl days of the 1930s.

This boom is precarious, too. The marijuana El Dorado could wilt in the face of threatened federal enforcement. Almost worse, Colorado's neighbors could follow the Centennial State on the path to legalization, ending the need for what a local dispensary worker called a "marijuana mecca."

While it lasts, Trinidad has plenty to celebrate. Millions in marijuana taxes - $2.8 million in 2017 alone - are ending decades of civic decay. There are jobs, and some hope.

"It's been good," said Trinidad native Gianna Torres, who runs I Love Sugar, a well-placed candy shop on Commercial Street near a block with eight marijuana stores.

The happy cannabis tourists pack Torres Store on the weekends. By Thursday she was already out of her signature chocolate-covered bacon.

"They go crazy for it," she said.

The city of Raton, New Mexico has been seen an increase in marijuana being brought through their city. Undersheriff Leonard Baca says he hardly has enough room to store all the marijuana his deputies are seizing on Interstate 25 coming from Trinidad. (Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette). 

Designer contraband

As Trinidad revels in its new found marijuana wealth, there's a different story 20 miles south across the New Mexico line. In Raton, Colfax County Undersheriff Leonard Baca says he hardly has enough room to store all the marijuana his deputies are seizing on Interstate 25.

He can see where it comes from. It seems stores in Trinidad know how to brand their products.

"It says it right on the label," Baca said, sitting in his office a few feet down the hall from his bulging evidence locker.

From Oklahoma City to Salt Lake, cops are finding smuggled Colorado marijuana and marijuana products.

"It's showing up here," said Mark Woodward, with the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, of Colorado labeled marijuana packages. He said it's coming from Oklahoma residents who've visited Colorado.

It's not just leaving by car - Woodward said his state is intercepting an increasing amount of pot in the U.S. mail.

That's no surprise to Washington State University economist Ben Cowan, who recently published a research paper on the topic. Near the two states that approved the sale of recreational marijuana in 2012, the evidence is clear.

"We're observing an increase in marijuana possession arrests in border states that neighbor Colorado and Washington," he said.

Marijuana possession arrests have jumped 30 percent in border counties just across state lines, Cowan's study found. And Colorado's impact on neighbors is the greater of the two states.

"Colorado is an interesting experiment in the sense that are so many states around it that have not legalized," he said.

It's an experiment that could draw increased scrutiny as U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded a hands-off policy toward states that have legalized what is still, under federal law, a Class I illegal drug.

"It is the mission of the Department of Justice to enforce the laws of the United States, and the previous issuance of guidance undermines the rule of law and the ability of our local, state, tribal and federal law enforcement partners to carry out this mission," Sessions said in a statement.

Colorado's marijuana sellers, an industry spokeswoman said, are selling a legal product and are not responsible for those who choose to smuggle it across borders.

"It is one thing that the sales occurred, it is another to say something illicit followed," said Kristi Kelly, executive director of the Marijuana Industry Group. "That's a big leap."

A car from Texas is seen outside of Highland Health on Thursday February 22, 2018 in Trinidad. Many out-of-state tourists with cars from Kansas, Texas, New Mexico and Oklahoma are seen at myriad of different pot shops, 21 to be exact, in a city that lays just north of the New Mexico border and houses less than 10,000 residents. (Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette). 

An ounce a day

In Colorado, residents are allowed to purchase an ounce of marijuana a day at dispensaries.

In Trinidad, with so many dispensaries, out-of-towners Thursday were easily spotted going from store-to-store, leaving each with that legal ounce.

With so many stores in close proximity, ounces add up here.

Ruben Romero, a Trinidad native who works at M and M Distributing on Commercial Street, says customers are told to follow the rules - no more than an ounce and don't cross the border.

"They know the rules, it's pretty common sense," Romero said.

Las Animas County Commissioner Mac Louden, though, says everybody in the county knows the marijuana is headed out of state,

"It's pretty obvious what going on," he said.

One Porsche with Texas plates made a regular circuit around Trinidad Thursday, spotted at nine marijuana shops over the course of two hours. At each its two occupants went inside and came out with a bag each of marijuana.

The driver, a woman, wouldn't give her name, but explained why she's drawn to Trinidad.

"It's the closest place with legal weed," she said.

It's something that bothers Ann DeMarco, whose husband owns Highland Health, a marijuana retailer just south of downtown Trinidad on Santa Fe Trail.

"... I worry about it," she said, but the rules are explained to customers, and DeMarco says she has no way to track the town's binge-buyers. "I can't run out the door and say, 'Let me see what's in your car.'" But there is concern that the traffic that becomes illicit when crossing Raton Pass on I-25 could trigger a federal crackdown.

"I worry about it every day," DeMarco said.

Another worry for Trinidad - New Mexico's Legislature is pondering legalization of recreational marijuana with a bill introduced last month.

A wide variety of the three main strains, sativa, indicia and hybrids that vary in their THC percentage being sold at The M&M Dispensary on Thursday February 22, 2018 in Trinidad. (Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette). 

High quality pot

If New Mexico approves the sale of recreational marijuana, Trinidad's boom will probably bust, according to research conducted by University of Oregon Professor Ben Hansen.

Hansen investigated the impact of Oregon's move to legalize recreational marijuana on pot shops across the Columbia River in Washington state. He found that their sales plunged - a drop of 44 percent at the stores closest to the Oregon line.

In Las Animas County, where Trinidad stores sell more than $4 million in legal marijuana per month, a 44 percent drop would equate to a $22 million jolt to the economy.

The reason border markets for marijuana climb so high and fall so quickly is tied to customer perceptions, Hansen said.

"It says that people put a high value on buying marijuana from a market that seems legitimate," he said.

The legitimacy of Colorado marijuana is a selling point in Trinidad where retailers show off a mind-boggling variety of products from newly-created strains of the plant to candies and cannabis skin lotion.

"It's such a remarkable super plant," said Trinidad budtender Romero.

Retailers say they test their crop to ensure its not tainted by chemicals and pesticides. Jars of the marijuana boast of the tetrahydrocannabinol concentration - known as THC, the psychoactive component of pot. Some varieties top 30 percent.

Another out-of-state customer on Commercial Street said that quality is attractive to consumers.

"It's good stuff," said the man, who carried a shopping bag of marijuana products but wouldn't give his name, saying the product is illegal where he lives in Oklahoma.

Oregon professor Hansen said that customers may not fully understand the consequences of taking Colorado's legal marijuana across the state line.

He compared buying black-market marijuana in states where it remains illegal to transporting Colorado pot into neighboring states.

"The first is a minor misdemeanor, the latter one - if you get caught - is a federal felony.

Gianna Torres, who runs I Love Sugar, candy shop on Commercial Street near a block with eight marijuana stores poses for a portrait with her son Travis, 5, on Thursday February 22, 2018 in Trinidad. Her best sold item to the cannabis crowd - chocolate-covered bacon. (Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette). 

Drinks, food and candy bars

Taking Colorado marijuana out of state is taking a toll on bordering jurisdictions, said Spohn, who studied the impact of Colorado's legalization on Nebraska.

Nebraska's border counties and those along the Interstate 80 corridor spend an extra $10 million a year enforcing marijuana laws since Colorado opened its recreational stores, he found.

Arrests for marijuana possession in the seven Nebraska counties bordering Colorado have nearly tripled since Colorado legalized.

And it's not Colorado residents rolling up the toll.

"It is mostly Nebraska citizens going across the border," he said.

Wyoming is seeing a similar trend, said Wyoming Highway Patrol Sgt. Kyle McKay.

Near the border, troopers are seeing marijuana far more frequently since Colorado's legalization and they're relearning how to spot the drug.

"I am seeing a trend of different types of (marijuana) coming into our state," McKay said. "Now you're seeing it in drinks, in food and in candy bars. It seems like they are marketing it to youth."

McKay worries about what his agency is letting whiz by on interstates 25 and 80.

"We don't have dedicated officers to watch for marijuana coming out of Colorado," McKay said. "We're missing 10 times as much as we are catching."

The same is true in Raton, where the Colfax County Sheriff's Office has 11 officers, including the sheriff.

Baca said if his agency was given more deputies and a drug-sniffing dog they could make a marijuana arrest every few minutes along I-25.

"It is very frustrating," he said,

When deputies have the time, they're making marijuana busts in record numbers, he said.

"Everything we've got is all off traffic stops."

Ranked #1 on Leafly List: Best Dispensaries in Colorado (Fall 2017 and Winter 2017) the distinctive red building of Highland Health is found in the city of Trinidad. Highland Health is a locally owned and operated recreational dispensary and has been open in Trinidad since October 2015. (Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette). 

Return of the artists

Some in Trinidad want the marijuana boom to end.

Deputy Las Animas County Clerk Shawn Descolini is hoping New Mexico legalizes the drug.

"There would be no purpose in coming to Colorado," she said.

Marijuana has brought long-sought wealth and jobs to Trinidad, and welcome tax revenue, but Descolini says it's been a double-edged sword.

"We are also seeing an influx of homeless people and crime," she said.

But for much of the town, marijuana has represented a lifeboat for a sinking ship.

"Marijuana came at a very fortuitous time," said DeMarco.

Trinidad's early years saw it boom as a Santa Fe Trail trading post. Coal mining came in the 1860s and sustained the place for decades. Labor strife and other factors saw coal's decline in the town.

It boomed again in the 1960s with a hippie-driven artist colony. Also in the '60s came Dr. Stanley Biber, whose revolutionary surgical techniques made Trinidad the world's sex-change capital. Biber died and the gender-changing business moved away.

Coal-bed methane and fracking revived the town in the 1980s before that business, too, went bust.

The population of the town topped 13,000 in 1940 - 5,000 more residents than today.

Hopes are high that marijuana can revive the place. It's already filling empty storefronts. The artists are coming back, too.

"It seems like a lot of money is pouring into town," said Gavin Clary, an artist in hand-forged iron who moved in last year to join the arts scene.

At the candy shop, Torres said the future has never looked brighter.

"It's been good," she said.

Locals do talk about the bust that's almost sure to follow.

But for now, Trinidad is an unlikely capital of the marijuana world, Romero said before he went back to work at his marijuana shop.

"We have our own marijuana mecca," he said. "All the stoners turn toward Trinidad."


Contact Tom Roeder: 636-0240

Twitter: @xroederx

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