HOOPER — Charlie Williams doesn’t believe there should be stores selling pot in his tiny town deep in the San Luis Valley.
The 67-year-old pastor isn’t alone. Two dozen of his fellow residents joined him last month in successfully turning down — 25 to 18 — a measure that would have allowed recreational and medical cannabis sales in this town of fewer than 100 just west of Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve.
“It’s a lot of conservative-minded people who really don’t want that in their town,” said Williams, who preaches at the non-denominational Church of the Living God in Hooper. “Some of us in Hooper wanted to draw a line and keep that out of here.”
Hooper was one of four rural Colorado towns — stretching across 430 miles from the Kansas border to the New Mexico line — to reject cannabis sales at the ballot box April 5. The other three were Burlington, Ignacio and La Veta.
Last month’s municipal election results appear to affirm the notion that rural Colorado is decidedly less friendly to the marijuana industry than the more populated parts of the state — a dynamic that generally aligns with the political and cultural divisions that have deepened in the state in recent decades.
But a closer examination of Colorado’s legal marijuana landscape reveals that the situation is not so black and white.
The drug is available in all four far-flung corners of the state, from Sedgwick in the northeast to Cortez in the southwest and Craig in the northwest to Las Animas in the southeast, and in plenty of small towns in between.
In the politically conservative San Luis Valley, three towns have dispensaries while the cultivation of cannabis has gone into hyperdrive. Area 420, in Moffat, hosts more than 70 grow operations guarded by miles of high-security fencing and 24/7 video surveillance — likely the highest concentration of such businesses in the state.
With plans to more than triple in size, Area 420 boasts on its website of lax building codes, low taxes, plentiful sunshine and a “cannabis-friendly municipality” in which to do business.
“We’re in a sea of insanity,” Mike Biggio, who founded Area 420 several years ago, said of his location in the middle of a red swath of the state. “The dichotomy is crazy.”
Ray Newmyer, who stepped down as Hooper’s mayor last month after serving nearly 20 years on town council, wonders if his community isn’t missing the boat when it comes to tax revenues from legal marijuana sales.
“It’s been a boon for Moffat,” the 79-year-old water well driller said of his neighbor just 18 miles up the road.
Truman Bradley, executive director of the Marijuana Industry Group, isn’t bothered by the recent election results. Getting buy-in on cannabis takes time and can take several attempts at the ballot box, he said.
“It means communities that had never had these conversations before are having these conversations,” Bradley said. “I really see this as an opportunity for political discourse and an opportunity for towns to talk about how to engage with marijuana. It’s not one-size-fits-all.”
Colorado voters approved medical marijuana in 2000 and followed up 12 years later with support for recreational pot too. Legal sales of weed — the first of its kind in the United States — began on Jan. 1, 2014.
Amendment 64, the 2012 recreational marijuana measure, was structured to allow each county, city and town in Colorado to decide for itself whether to permit sales of pot. While the first wave of stores to open primarily served metro Denver, smaller outlying towns like Alma, Telluride and Dumont also pulled the trigger on marijuana sales on the first day.
According to the Colorado Municipal League, there are now nearly 100 cities and towns in the state that permit marijuana sales while more than 60 allow cannabis cultivation — out of 272 total cities and towns in Colorado.
Last year, the state eclipsed $10 billion in marijuana sales since retail pot became legal more than eight years ago. Colorado received more than $423 million in tax and fee revenue from the industry in 2021 alone.
But those remittances aren’t evenly distributed across the state, Bradley said.
“The eastern part of Colorado is pretty much a marijuana desert,” he said.
That cannabis vacuum was further solidified on April 5 when voters in Burlington, a town of 3,500 12 miles from the Kansas border on Interstate 70, rejected pot sales, leaving a huge chunk of the eastern plains — a 250-mile stretch from Sedgwick to Las Animas — devoid of retail marijuana. (Log Lane Village, near Fort Morgan, has dispensaries but it’s closer to the metro area than the Kansas line)
That’s just fine with Roger Stagner, former mayor of Lamar, who in last November’s election voted against allowing dispensaries in the city. Lamar sits in the southeast corner of Colorado, a closer drive to Oklahoma than to Pueblo.
“Do we really want our kids driving by these stores?” Stagner said. “It brings stuff to your community that isn’t good for your community.”
That includes crime, homelessness and out-of-town marijuana interests trying to make a buck off of small-town residents, he said.
“It’s basically big companies coming in and telling the town they’re going to get rich off of this — and it doesn’t work,” Stagner said. “I don’t believe it’s something you build your community on.”
Lamar’s marijuana measure actually passed with voters last fall but was challenged by a citizen who claimed that the petition process to get the issue on the ballot had been improper. In March, a judge agreed and threw out the election results.
In April, the city council declined to place the measure back on the ballot, meaning those who want legal marijuana commerce in Lamar will have to launch another signature-gathering effort to get it in front of voters again. Lamar native Brent Bates, who worked in the Front Range’s cannabis industry for a decade before recently returning to his hometown, said the issue is not over.
“There is no stopping this train at this point,” he said.
Opioids and meth, Bates said, are far more deadly than marijuana could ever be. At least 900 people died of fentanyl overdoses in Colorado in 2021 – half of all 1,836 drug overdoses in the state that year, according to provisional data from the state’s public health department.
“They’re not dying from weed, but from methamphetamine and heroin,” Bates said.
Moreover, he said, Lamar is forgoing thousands of dollars a year in tax revenues that could help it pay for amenities and services. The Marijuana Industry Group estimates the average pot shop in Colorado spins off anywhere from $200,000 to $350,000 in tax revenue annually.
Las Animas, 37 miles down U.S. 50, winds up being the beneficiary of Lamar’s reluctance to jump on the weed train, Bates said.
“Las Animas is just raking in the customers,” he said. “They’re not stopping in Lamar because there are no shops. So they go to Las Animas and it gets all the revenue.”
Newmyer, Hooper’s recent mayor, worries about that economic disparity playing out on Highway 17, which cuts through the heart of the vast San Luis Valley, linking Moffat up north to Alamosa in the south.
Boarded-up buildings, a vacant red brick school building with shattered windows, dead and matted grass in Hooper’s empty town park and junk and garbage piled up in yards are what visitors to the town see today. With the closure last year of the Hooper Junction convenience store, the town’s sales tax revenue has nearly evaporated.
Coupled with property tax revenues, Newmyer said Hooper nets no more than $50,000 a year.
That means no improvements to the town’s water system or paving of its roads, he said, relaxing in an easy chair in his living room on a recent afternoon after having worked on a well. Describing himself as a conservative Republican, Newmyer believes that people have the right to do as they please — including when it comes to cannabis.
“If you want to go to your house and get stoned out of your mind on alcohol or marijuana, that’s your personal liberty,” said Newmyer, dressed in denim overalls with a ballcap perched on his head. “I just believe in a person’s personal freedom, and personal responsibility.”
Biggio, head of the Area 420 grow operation in Moffat, said it may take time for more communities in the valley to get comfortable with weed. But if a late March survey from CBS News/YouGov is any indication — 66% of Americans told pollsters they want recreational marijuana use to be legal under federal law and in their own state — that day is coming.
“I wouldn’t be surprised that in due time Hooper and places like it step up,” the 42-year-old Colorado native said. “They just have to be approached properly.”
Chain smoking cigarettes as he revs the engine on his Fiat Abarth 500, Biggio tears past one grow house after another on Moffat’s west side. Imposing barbed wire tops much of the fencing, while green netting blocks a view to the inside.
Signs warn of around-the-clock electronic surveillance on the premises.
Biggio, a self-described felon who did eight years in prison on marijuana charges, oversees 73 grows on 100 acres. Another 320 adjoining acres sit to the north and west, ready for the second and third phases of Area 420’s development.
Biggio sells plots to cannabis growers, many of whom live on-site in mobile homes or RVs.
“We specialize in the people who don’t have all the money and investors to get started,” he said.
He hopes to convert four vintage train cars he purchased in the valley — including an Iowa Pacific and a St. Croix car — into a consumption lounge, restaurant and a studio for cannabis podcasts.
Not that Biggio’s vision didn’t come to fruition without a struggle. First, the land had to be annexed into Moffat from Saguache County when it became clear that the county wouldn’t play ball. Biggio is still in litigation with the county over the project.
Now, Area 420 is running into issues with electric power, having maxed out its power consumption from two nearby electric substations. Biggio is in negotiations with another power provider to see if he can get more juice.
“That’s our brick wall right now,” he said.
Critical to Area 420’s success so far has been Biggio’s willingness to integrate himself into the community, he said. He served on the town council for a term and hasn’t “missed a town meeting in five years.”
“I honestly believe you have to have full support,” he said. “We did everything in front of the town and it was incremental. If you really want to get support, it’s not going to happen in a year.”
Interim Town Clerk Matt Litrenta said Moffat takes in an average of $10,000 a month in tax revenue, the bulk of which comes from excise taxes generated at Area 420. The town of 100 or so residents now has more than half a million dollars in reserves, he said.
Litrenta, who owns a grow at Area 420, said there are plans in the works to revamp Moffat’s water system and pave its streets, as well as spruce up its public park. A Dollar General opened its doors not long ago, saving residents a 20-minute drive to Saguache or a 30-minute drive to Alamosa or Center to pick up basic provisions.
Residents of Hooper may gradually take a hint from what is happening up the road in Moffat and make a different decision about marijuana sales in the future. But they have to want it, Biggio said.
“I wish they would have a change of heart, but if people don’t want it, then it’s not worth doing business there,” he said.
Barry Sullens, owner of marijuana grow Kind Baron LLC in Saguache County, found that out the hard way this spring. He was the main proponent behind trying to legalize cannabis sales in Hooper, with hopes to open a store there and use it as a base for deliveries throughout the valley.
“Hooper would have been a town on the forefront of delivery,” said Sullens, who has been growing pot in the San Luis Valley for nearly a decade.
He knew Hooper “has a lot of constraints with money” and that a dispensary could establish a solid tax base for the town. But he acknowledged, with a smile, “they are not ready to jump forward.”
Stella Cox, the former mayor of Ignacio, said there are more important things to a town’s identity and wellbeing than money. A pot measure in the town, a 30-minute drive from Durango, went down to defeat April 5 by a tally of 62 to 49.
“It may bring in money, but there’s going to be an effect on law enforcement and we don’t have a treatment center here,” Cox said. “It just wasn’t a good situation for the kids and their future. We just don’t need any more dealings with drugs in our community.
“It is discouraging because money talks and that’s what governments are looking at.”
Bradley, with the Marijuana Industry Group, said it’s about more than just revenue. There’s an inexorable and widespread shift underway in public attitudes toward cannabis that is unlikely to reverse itself.
Earlier this month, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to decriminalize marijuana at the federal level. While the bill’s future in the Senate is uncertain, Bradley said it’s an unambiguous signal that fear and distrust of marijuana are ebbing across the board.
“It’s quite clear the direction the state is going in, and the country, and even the world,” he said. “The stigma is slowly falling away.”