Colorado's most dispensary-heavy border town could soon be facing challengers across state lines.
Home to 26 dispensaries and fewer than 9,000 people, Trinidad has been a popular marijuana outpost for travelers coming through on Interstate 25, with visitors from New Mexico, whose border is just south of the town, responsible for the heaviest influx of customers, according to local dispensary owners.
But New Mexico has been on the verge of legalizing recreational marijuana
for a couple of years now, and could make the move in a special session of the New Mexico Legislature if Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham has her way. Although not a lock — the New Mexico Senate has failed to hear a recreational legalization bill in 2020 and 2021 — Grisham is on record as saying she is "not going to wait another year” to get recreational legalization done, and proponents view the change as a matter of when, not if.
While Trinidad dispensary owners acknowledge that not all 26 stores will survive after New Mexico legalizes, managers of both chain and independent operations in the town say they believe that more states joining the party is a good thing.
"We want to see marijuana legalized across the U.S., and we want to see people have access to this remedy and choice," says Kimberly Schultz, co-owner of Trinidad's Higher Calling U dispensary. "The New Mexico economy could use the boost while alleviating some of the legal aspect that comes down on the people."
A native of Albuquerque, Schultz is hopeful that interstate commerce between New Mexico and Colorado marijuana businesses will be possible if federal legalization ever comes to pass. She believes that Colorado's head start in commercial pot and Trinidad's reputation as both a marijuana outpost and a tourist stop have built some protection against competition — though she admits that dispensaries will have to step up their game if they want to stay open.
"The fact that we have 26 stores here makes us an attraction. I'm not sure [New Mexico's] vision would be to drop 26 stores into a town. It's such a young industry, and there's going to be some attrition, but we've created that attraction," Schultz says. " A few stores might fall off the map, but if we position ourselves well and look into the future, that is the key. The idea here is that we're boutique, sustainable and craft, so when everything goes to Coke and Marlboro, we have our niche."
Chain operations with Trinidad stores may have more funding behind them, but they'll face similar challenges, according to Rich Kwesell, co-owner of southern Colorado's Strawberry Fields dispensaries. Like Schultz, Kwesell insists that it's the more, the merrier in commercial marijuana legalization.
"We'd certainly feel the hit, but it's all good for the progression. To say it'll be the same in Trinidad, I don't think so. If you ask any store down there, they all see a decent amount of business from the New Mexico and Texas side of things," he says. "But I think there's always going to be tourism coming through Trinidad and to Trinidad."
Trinidad's local government has been taking measures to prepare for the reality of increased cannabis competition, according to economic development coordinator Wally Wallace, who's been using his Denver entertainment and business connections to create more events and diversify commerce in the town. So far, Wallace has helped lure Denver businesses such as Sexy Pizza
and Mutiny Information Cafe to Trinidad
, and he hopes that more comedy and music festivals like his upcoming Chief Bicycle & Comedy Festival, which is entering its third year in 2021, will make it their annual home. A Hilton hotel is being built in town, Wallace adds, with plans for residential developments in the works, as well.
But in a city that spent nearly $6 million in marijuana tax revenue
on city projects and initiatives from 2019 through the third quarter of 2020, it's hard to see how the impact of the recreational marijuana gold rush could be replaced. Local officials are studying what legalization in New Mexico might mean, Wallace says; to help prepare for any drop-off, the town puts 30 percent of all marijuana revenue in a rainy day fund, which reached nearly $4 million by the end of last year.
"I'm concerned for the cannabis businesses themselves. I think some of them will probably decide not to stay in business here, and some of them may be looking to invest in some of these New Mexico border towns," Wallace says. "We've been investing in beautifying our city in the hopes that cannabis won't remain the biggest driver of people coming here. We certainly hope it remains a driver, but we realize it might not always be."