Small, Struggling DeBeque, Colorado, Pins Its Hopes On Pot

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Photo: Families attend the Wild Horse Days festivities in downtown DeBeque
Families attend the Wild Horse Day festivities in downtown DeBeque, Colo.

In 2014, voters in the small Western Slope town of DeBeque approved the first and only recreational marijuana enterprises in Mesa County. Now the town, which struggles financially and has long been known primarily for nearby wild horse herds, is reaping the rewards: Last year, taxes on marijuana sales brought in more money than the town sees in overall sales tax and energy impact fees combined.

The town is now deciding how to spend the marijuana windfall on a long wish list of community improvements. Officials there are looking at a scholarship fund for high school seniors, a town beautification project, and a whole host of infrastructure projects.

Lance Stewart is the administrator for the town of DeBeque and is helping to shape pot-tax town improvements. He spoke with Colorado Matters host Ryan Warner. Read interview highlights below:

On how attitudes changed:

“It has been quite a contentious situation for the community, at least up into the time of the vote. I have seen a softening in that situation since that point in time -- especially because we have two of our businesses up and running that have dispelled a lot of the rumors that came along during the course of the election. ...

“We have honestly not seen any uptick in crime here due to the sale of marijuana. We have not seen, as folks said [we would], deadbeats hanging around on the corners or in the community parks smoking pot. Nothing of that nature has occurred. Most of the people we have seen, or that I have witnessed personally, are upstanding individuals. They walk into the establishments, they make their purchases, and down the road they go.”

On what the pot tax money is going toward:

“It’ll be a lifeblood for the community that they can, for once in their history, be able to start infrastructure replacement programs for their streets, curbs and gutters. Water lines, sewer lines, settling ponds at the sewer plant need to be re-lined. And all of these things are million- and multi-million-dollar projects. … The catalyst for it all has been the pot industry.”

On guarding against a possible bust:

“That is very possible. I’ve advised the board that I work for they kind of need to make hay while the sun shines, so to speak. Because once there are additional for-sale facilities for the West, which we can assume will happen at some point, it will affect the revenues we see from the sale of marijuana here in the community.

“I honestly believe the sustainability of the entire industry in our area, as well as our revenue stream, is going to be from the grow facilities. Because we do have a lot of room to accommodate both warehousing and growing facilities here in the community that can then ship the product out of here.”