Pot boom wakes sleepy Dinosaur, Colorado

There isn’t much to this town a short drive from the national monument of the same name. A couple of gas stations, a liquor store, and a small motel line the two main drags, Brontosaurus Boulevard and Stegosaurus Freeway.

But this community of about 315 and its four marijuana dispensaries — one shop for every 79 residents — is a contender for the title of cannabis capital of Colorado.

Dinosaur, nestled in the northwestern corner of the state, is a five-minute drive to the Utah line and a couple of hours away from Wyoming, both states where recreational marijuana use is illegal.

Dinosaur lies at the intersection of U.S. Highway 40 (that's Brontosaurus Boulevard) and Colorado Highway 64 (Stegosaurus Freeway). The crossroads had long been a stop where truckers filled their fuel tanks and their bellies. But until weed came to town, there was little to sustain the local economy.

It's a classic story of a border town prospering from differing laws state to state, and how arbitrary lines drawn through a desolate landscape drive economic patterns. Coloradans from Dinosaur cross the border to get groceries and health care. Utahans come to Dinosaur for lottery tickets, liquor, and pot.

The four cannabis stores, which opened after the passage of a 2016 ballot measure, have changed the fortunes of a town that made repeated losing bets on other commodities before finally hitting the jackpot with marijuana.

"You'd be shocked how much money comes through here," said Jim Evans, the town's treasurer. "There's money running out of our ears."

Lando Blakley, who has lived in Dinosaur most of his life, opened the town's third retail store, Dino Dispensary, in 2018. He estimates that 95% of his business comes from out-of-state customers, some from as far away as North Dakota.

"Right now, cannabis is Dinosaur's lifeblood," he said.

Utah has legalized medical marijuana, but with tight restrictions and few places to buy it. So, patients may have to travel hours to outlets in Salt Lake City or Ogden for an in-state supplier. But for those living in Vernal or other eastern towns, Dinosaur is the closest place to buy cannabis in person.

"If anyone had to travel in the wintertime to go to a dispensary in Salt Lake City, they're not going to do it," said Michael, a 37-year-old who, like most pot-shop customers who spoke with KFF Health News, declined to give his last name after buying marijuana at one of the stores. "Why drive 300 miles and put your life at risk, when you can drive 30?"

It is illegal to bring marijuana over the border to Utah, but multiple customers said they've never had a problem. Still, a traffic stop for other reasons could have more serious consequences if police find marijuana in the car.

Utah residents Jackson and Chelsea order their cannabis online from Rocky Mountain Cannabis, located, appropriately, at 420 E. Brontosaurus Blvd. (420 is shorthand for smoking marijuana), and drive across the state line to pick it up.

"Everybody in Utah goes and gets their green card and then comes here and gets their marijuana," Jackson said.

The cards, carried by people registered with Utah's medical marijuana program (about 70,000 of the state's 3.4 million residents), provide cover in case they get pulled over. Other customers say it's not worth the hassle to apply for a card and pay the $15 annual fee when none of that is required in Colorado.

At least two other Colorado towns rival Dinosaur in per capita retail cannabis outlets. Moffat in south-central Colorado boasts four marijuana stores in a town and surrounding area of just 818 people, due to a massive cannabis growing operation.

Sedgwick is another border town that has banked on weed, with three stores and a population of 172. The town sits in the northeastern corner of the state, less than 10 minutes from Nebraska, where marijuana is illegal for both medical and recreational use.

Some border towns opted against allowing marijuana stores, such as Rangely, from which residents now make the 18-mile trip to Dinosaur to buy cannabis.

The four stores in Dinosaur are bunched on the east side of town, just off Highway 40, pretty much the only locations that satisfy the town mandate to be at least 1,000 feet from a school. Most outlets want to be along the highway, to capture customers passing through. Someone could easily walk to all four stores, and some people do just that to dodge the state's daily 1-ounce purchase limit.

To say that cannabis has transformed the appearance of town would be a stretch. It remains a sleepy little town, with little else to drive its economy. Despite the thriving marijuana trade, there still seem to be more closed businesses than open ones.

In fact, the town isn't quite sure what to do with all the money it collects. It once limped along with an annual budget of $100,000 or less, but Dinosaur now rakes in that much each month in cannabis revenue alone.

In 2021, the town collected about $1.4 million in cannabis-related taxes and licensing fees.

When it first approved cannabis sales, the town collected a 5% tax that flowed into its general revenue fund. Residents voted to add a second 5% tax earmarked for infrastructure projects. It collects licensing fees from the retail stores and a marijuana grow operation and gets a portion of the cannabis revenue collected by the state.

That money has allowed the town to build new sewage ponds, repaint the inside of its water tank, and add new housing lots with paved roads and sewer and water connections. The town is in the midst of a beautification project, planting trees and flowers, and is refurbishing the former school building into a community recreation center. Where the town previously relied on the county sheriff for law enforcement and suffered through long response times, it has now hired three marshals of its own.

And last year, for the first time in decades, the town revived its annual festival, now called the Dinosaur Stone Age Stampede, with food, games, and music.

But most of the marijuana tax revenue goes into savings. The town expects to have about $3.5 million in its coffers by year-end, and, Evans said, Dinosaur draws some $230,000 a year in interest alone.

Becoming a cannabis hot spot wasn't a given. Heated debate erupted when the Town Council first considered allowing retail stores. Town leaders ultimately decided to let the residents choose at the polls. An initial ballot measure in 2010 failed.

By 2016, opinions changed as residents saw other border towns in Colorado flourishing while their town was quickly becoming … well, a dinosaur.

"People were seeing that the towns that had [legalized] was prospering," said Mayor Richard Blakley, 70, who is the father of Dino Dispensary owner Lando Blakley. "And no real bad crime increase or stuff like that."

The settlement that became Dinosaur was initially called Baxter Flats, but was established as a town in 1947, and named Artesia, a nod to the artesian wells in the surrounding hills. In 1966, the National Park Service told local leaders if they changed the name to Dinosaur, the town would prosper from its connection to the national monument known for its prehistoric fossils and petroglyphs.

Residents agreed and renamed their home and the streets. But prosperity never followed, in part because the Colorado side of the national monument has few dinosaur fossils. It's mostly a showcase of geology.

"People come in and ask, 'Where’s the museum? Where’s the skeletons?'" Evans said. Other than a few scientifically questionable dinosaur sculptures, there's no Tyrannosaurus rex or Stegosaurus, no Velociraptor or Allosaurus.

As the national park rangers say, Utah has the bones, Colorado has the stones — or, as people say on the Utah side of the border, the stoned.

"We have a reputation," Evans said. "You talk about Dinosaur in Utah, and it's like, 'Yeah, they're all potheads and stuff.'"

The mayor said the town has seen few negative consequences from allowing marijuana, among them some people unprepared for the drug's potency being sickened by it. The town is growing. The population, which had dropped to 243 residents in the 2020 census, has rebounded to about 315, Blakley said. Many people have also purchased vacant lots to take advantage of the relatively cheap cost of real estate, making it difficult to find land in town.

Blakley hopes the economic growth will bring a grocery store. Residents drive 40 minutes to Vernal, Utah, or two hours to Grand Junction, to stock up on food or to receive medical care. Children go to school in Rangely since Dinosaur's school closed years ago. An urgent care clinic opened across from the town hall a few years ago, but it couldn't make a go of it.

Even if Dinosaur continues to grow, it won't add more cannabis stores. The Town Council capped the available licenses at four. And those four stores are now the essence of Dinosaur.

"Otherwise," Evans, the treasurer, said, "this is a sad little town."

Kaiser Health NewsThis article was reprinted from khn.org, a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues and is one of the core operating programs at KFF - the independent source for health policy research, polling, and journalism.


The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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