Trinidad and Raton hold lessons for Borderland as New Mexico legalizes marijuana
By Sara Sanchez/El Paso Inc.
TRINIDAD, Colorado – When Shawn Tatum was first on his way to Trinidad five years ago, he realized he made a mistake.
He meant to travel from Virginia to the seaside town of Trinidad, California, and noticed his mistake halfway to the Colorado town of Trinidad.
He continued anyway and today is the general manager of Tower 64, a marijuana-friendly motel on the southern edge of town. He’s one of the many individuals who have moved to town since recreational marijuana sales began in Colorado in 2014.
“The culture seems to be more Texas neighborly, which is why I like it so much,” said Tatum, who is originally from Bell County in central Texas. “People are looking out for each other, whether it’s just for recreational weed or for real life-changing stuff.”
Trinidad, a city of about 8,300, is the first town you get to in Colorado on Interstate 25, a major interstate highway that spans the country from its southern tip near Las Cruces, New Mexico, and up through Wyoming.
It’s also the first place on I-25 in Colorado where you can find legal weed – dozens and dozens of shops bring in pot tourists from Texas, New Mexico and other neighboring states where recreational marijuana is illegal.
Thirteen miles to the south, Raton, New Mexico, is Trinidad’s neighbor. The two communities have a total population of just over 14,000 – a mix of people living in the in-between space of a fading footprint of a once vibrant oil and coal mining economy and a modern, expansive cannabis market. The combined population of the two cities declined by 1,500 people between 2010 and 2020.
Over the past decade, residents of Raton and Trinidad have lived under a very different set of cannabis laws. But that is set to change soon as New Mexico prepares for the legal sale of recreational marijuana.
In 2012, Colorado voters approved recreational cannabis, and sales began in 2014. Earlier this year, New Mexico lawmakers approved a bill legalizing recreational marijuana. Sales are slated to begin no later than April 1, 2022.
Despite the law differences, Trinidad and Raton have existed together as neighbors, sharing labor pools, commuters and more. It’s not so different from the Southwest Borderland, where communities are isolated from bigger cities and reliant on each other for things like shopping and health care.
As recreational marijuana becomes legal in New Mexico and remains illegal in Texas, cities and towns along the state line will soon find themselves in a similar situation as the one experienced over the past decade by Raton and Trinidad.
El Paso is about to become the last stop west on I-10 before drivers run into three consecutive legal weed states: New Mexico, Arizona and California.
Seven years into legal Colorado weed and just months into New Mexico’s new legalization, there’s still a lot of unknowns from community leaders in Trinidad and Raton. But one thing is clear: Political leaders, law enforcement, business people and residents are watching closely to see how this all plays out.
Before there was mining in Trinidad, there was ranching and agriculture. In the mid-1800s, ranching families from northern New Mexico settled in the Purgatoire Valley, where Trinidad is located.
Then the train lines came to Trinidad, bringing along the mining and coal industry. There were once dozens of mines dotting the valley, supporting entire towns and economies.
By the late 1980s, oil and gas companies began shutting down mining operations in the Southwest. Today, only one mine is open near Trinidad: The New Elk Mine, a steelmaking coal mine about 20 miles west of town. The mine opened this spring and brought about 50 jobs to the area.
The loss of mining brought an economic downturn to Trinidad in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Small towns like Trinidad and Raton have had to pivot and search for other economic drivers, and not all towns have successfully made that turn.
Al Melton, director of the Trinidad History Museum, first came to town in 2017. As museum director, Melton has examined Trinidad’s history of boom-bust cycles.
“The busts hit hard. It’s a lot of job losses. If you take a look around town, you can really see how we’re still impacted,” Melton said. “We’re not a food desert because we’re so small, but we only have Walmart and Safeway. Produce, anything not shelf stable, can be dodgy.”
Though Trinidad is small, it has seen a significant revitalization and tourism draw through its recreational marijuana sales.
Walking through Commercial Street in the heart of Trinidad feels like a surreal juxtaposition. Rows of historic, well-renovated buildings house everything from restaurants and fitness centers to antique stores and cigarette emporiums.
But just around the corner, there are pot shops, one after another, sharing walls and sidewalk space.
The city has benefitted from sales tax revenue generated by legal marijuana. Trinidad’s prices for weed might be higher than what you’d find in Denver 200 miles north, but its tourist and pot-loving base keeps business steady.
But Trinidad also faces challenges including aging infrastructure, smaller labor pools, housing shortages, rising rents and brain drain.
“The marijuana tax money helps in some ways, but it still takes a lot to recover from decades of us being one of the poorest towns in the state,” Melton said.
Melton added that the town’s familiarity with boom-bust cycles means Trinidad is looking ahead to what might happen when New Mexico begins its recreational cannabis sales.
Some Trinidad businesses are bracing for sales and are focusing on sustainability, while the town hopes nearby recreation will strengthen the town’s tourism pull.
Fishers Peak, a giant mesa that boldly greets visitors on the drive into town, was dedicated as a 19,000-acre state park in 2020, after a history of private ownership.
“People are hoping that’ll be our big draw to keep our tourism, but I think people are also bracing for the other shoe to drop, so to speak,” Melton said.
Life in Raton was quiet on a recent Wednesday. There was little to no traffic, no wait at Year of the Dog for gourmet hot dogs and not too much going on at City Hall.
The town of 5,900 is a former mining town, once supported mainly by the nearby York Canyon mining complex that closed in the early 2000s. Raton’s population is now aging, with plenty of retirees and those seeking a peaceful small mountain town life.
Raton City Manager Scott Berry and Mayor Neil Segotta both worked at the coal mine. At one point, the mine supported 400 employees and their families. The effects of the mine closure rippled out to school enrollment and funding, retail businesses in town, reduction in the labor force and ultimately shrinking the tax base.
“No New Mexico community has successfully made that transition, and it’s very painful,” Berry said. “Raton has been forced to face that, and it’s difficult to do. There’s not a successful game plan for doing it. This is why Trinidad saw their chance to make this pivot with cannabis.”
Raton has also had a close-up view of Trinidad’s relationship with weed for the last seven years. Berry and Segotta said Raton’s proximity to Colorado and its cannabis sales have not always been a net positive.
“People here have seen what impacts it has had in Pueblo, Colorado Springs and Denver. We see there’s a negative side for us, and (the rest of) New Mexico doesn’t really know that yet. And they’re going to find out,” Berry said. “There’s apprehension in Raton. The positives discussed, we don’t think are very positive for us.”
Berry said negatives of Colorado’s legal pot include a still-running black market, lack of clarity and resources for enforcement in Raton and rising behavioral and substance abuse issues.
“The assumption is when you legalize it, the black market will go away,” Berry said. “I think the opposite is true. It encourages the black market, people are growing it and selling it, supporting the black market and that’s the problem we see in Colorado. It’s hard to see the difference in what’s legal and what’s not.”
It’s now legal in New Mexico for adults over the age of 21 to grow up to 12 marijuana plants on their property for personal use. It’s also legal in New Mexico to possess up to two ounces of marijuana flower, 16 grams of concentrate and 800 milligrams of edibles outside the home.
For reference, a joint typically contains about 0.5 to 1 gram of pot. Depending on the consumer’s tolerance and previous experiences, an 800-milligram dose of edibles eaten at once might send them to heaven, or Las Vegas, or the emergency room.
But despite a large swath of Western states with legal recreational pot sales – and even more with vibrant medical programs – marijuana remains illegal under federal law, and interstate trafficking of weed is illegal.
Summed up, the weed bought and sold in Colorado, or any legal state, is meant to be consumed there.
Despite all of that, there are still plenty of out-of-state travelers, including Texans, who visit Trinidad to buy the limit of one ounce per store at multiple stores and head back with product.
“It’s much tougher to tell, do you possess this legally, or are you trafficking? It becomes cloudy as to what’s legal and what’s not,” Berry said. “They’ve told us that there are some significant grow operations up there that are legal, but there are some that are illegal too. It’s hard to tell and enforce because it’s really cloudy.”
Advice and questions for the future
One of the biggest differences between recreational marijuana in Colorado and New Mexico is the level of local control different municipalities can exercise.
In Colorado, local governments can ban recreational pot sales or strictly limit where they occur. In New Mexico, no local jurisdiction can ban a marijuana business from operating, but they do have a say in location and time of operations for these businesses.
There’s also a difference in the sales tax structure on recreational weed in Colorado and New Mexico, which Mayor Segotta said would lead to less revenue on sales for small towns like Raton.
“This is not going to be the big windfall or cure-all for small communities,” Segotta said. “I think you’ll have your niches. Albuquerque and Santa Fe will probably generate some income, because of their population. Those located on the Texas border along the eastern side of the state will probably see an influx. People will stop in Clayton and won’t have to drive those 100 miles to Trinidad.”
Cities and towns across New Mexico will spend the next six months finalizing rules for incoming pot shops. New Mexico marijuana farmers are currently going through their first grow and harvest after legalization.
But what remains unclear is how a community like Sunland Park, nestled at the intersection of Texas, New Mexico and Mexico, will function with legal pot and its El Paso neighbor, where weed is still illegal at the state level, but with low-level possession decriminalized in the city.
El Paso and Sunland Park are situated along Interstate 10, a major highway that runs from Santa Monica, California, to Jacksonville, Florida.
Sunland Park, El Paso and much of the region is also surrounded by federal Border Patrol checkpoints, possibly discouraging Texan and other pot tourists along I-10 from returning home with prohibited souvenirs.
“That’s the big question. How are you going to regulate and enforce it?” Segotta said. “That’s a question a lot of our police officers in New Mexico are asking: ‘How am I going to know to stop this person?’ I don’t think New Mexico has figured out how they’re going to regulate and enforce.”
In 2003, Kim Schultz first arrived in Trinidad to run the city’s chamber of commerce. She was born and raised in Albuquerque and found Trinidad to be like a time capsule full of well-preserved buildings and a hard-working blue-collar community.
She is now a partner at Trinidad’s Higher Calling U, a large recreational and medical marijuana shop and grow facility on the city’s northern side. THCU is painted green and housed in a former Pepsi distribution facility.
The business was Trinidad’s first recreational pot shop in a market that now includes 28 retail shops and 77 business licenses for everything from cultivation to infused foods and products.
THCU started with eight employees and is now up to 35, Schultz said. She said that higher-and-rising sales taxes on weed is more of a threat to business than New Mexico’s recreational sales, and said that legalization is one of the best things to happen to the state.
She said her advice for the Borderland is to teach and get educated on cannabis, to embrace the plant medicine aspects and to focus on taking care of the population.
“These are pioneer times,” Schultz said. “If you’ve got an idea, a device, the peripheral businesses have done very well. Roach clips, restaurants, hotels. It’s not just about the dispensary, which serves as an attraction and to come back. To have a good experience on the forefront so that people want to come back I feel is very important.”
Like Schultz, Tatum, the general manager of the marijuana-friendly Tower 64 motel, felt the draw of Trinidad that kept him in town despite it not being his original destination.
“I said I’d stay here for five days, see how it is,” Tatum said.
He now sees visitors from all over the country who stop in to rest at Tower 64. The motel was originally built in the 1950s. The name was changed in the 2010s and is a reference to Amendment 64, which ratified Colorado’s constitution to allow for recreational marijuana sales.
Tatum, who has experience working at national hotel chains in Virginia, said even the hospitality business in Trinidad is welcoming and calm.
“Even small mistakes, they would have berated you. They want to throw their wealth in their face (in Virginia,)” Tatum said. “Out here it’s like, ‘here, have a blunt for free.’”
Cover photo: Recreational cannabis shops line Commercial Street in downtown Trinidad, Colorado. It is currently legal for an adult over 21 to purchase their limit – one ounce per day – at each individual store. (Sara Sanchez/El Paso Inc.)