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Tiny Dinosaur, Colorado, spreads out from the intersection of Colorado 64 and U.S. 40. The town, population 320, is snug against Colorado's border with Utah and its three recreational cannabis shops together do more than $500,000 a month in business. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Dinosaur is out there. In so many ways. This town of 320 people, give or take a few, is smack dab up against the Utah border in sparsely populated Moffat County. Its closest neighbors are Rangely, 18 miles to the east, and Vernal, 33 miles across Colorado’s western boundary.

For years, Dinosaur has had just six commercial businesses – two gas station/convenience stores, a liquor store, an ice-cream shop, a bar and grill, and a nine-room motel. These businesses mostly cater to visitors who pass through on their way to gawk at gigantic bones at the nearby Dinosaur National Monument or to ride the rapids on the Green and Yampa rivers.

Dinosaur has long pined for a grocery store or a pharmacy, but the town’s lengthy spell of lackluster economic growth is hinted on a sign posted under the town’s “Welcome” banner: “Governor’s Smart Growth & Development Award 1998.” There have been no awards since then.

But in the past year, Dinosaur’s business base has spiked upwards by two-thirds. Three marijuana shops have opened in downtown Dinosaur. A large cannabis grow operation is starting up within the town limits.

That many marijuana businesses popping up in such an out-of-the-way place is notable in itself. But there are more striking things happening in Dinosaur related to the cannabis trade.

Cop fired, search warrant issued for Town Hall

Dinosaur now has gobs of weed but no law enforcement. Despite a spate of break-ins, attempted break-ins and an armed robbery — mostly at the pot shops — the town board fired Dinosaur’s only cop a month ago. In a penny-pinching measure, the board then chose not to contract with the Moffat County Sheriff’s Office to provide coverage inside town boundaries until a new marshal can be hired.

Days after the marshal was fired, the biggest crime story in town had nothing to do with ne’er-do-wells trying to bust into weed dispensaries. It centered on the Dinosaur Town Hall. Sheriff’s deputies executed a search warrant there at the direction of the 14th Judicial District Attorney.

Who and what is being investigated at the town hall is unknown. The search warrant is sealed. The DA’s lips are sealed. But townsfolk have been speculating that the investigation focuses on possible “irregularities” in the handling of all that new pot revenue.

Mayor L.D. “Smitty” Smith, photographed at the Dinosaur Town Hall on Feb. 23, 2019, has been acting Town Marshal since the town’s lone cop was let go. Dinosaur has been wrangling with attempted break ins at its three recreational marijuana dispensaries. Together, the shops sell about $500,000 in cannabis products each month and the tax revenues are helping improve the outlook for the town of 320 people. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Mayor L.S. “Smitty” Smith dismisses that.

“Things happened,” is all he will say about possible illegal goings on at the small town-hall building that is fronted by a large plaster stegosaurus.

This much is known: in the last quarter of 2018, Dinosaur’s new pot shops were busy in spite of being located far away from any significant population centers and along a border where recreational marijuana is illegal on the other side of the line. Dinosaur’s weed shops took in around half a million in sales each month. That generated upwards of $25,000 a month in taxes for a town that was used to scraping by on as little as $2,700 a month in sales tax revenues.

Licensing fees of $5,000 per shop and annual renewal fees of $2,500 have added to the bonus.

“It has been a huge boon. It is quite a bit more than we were used to,” Dinosaur Clerk Tamara Long said.

Mayor Smith spelled out why be believes it would be next to impossible for anyone at the town hall to pocket any of that pot-tax revenue: Colorado’s Marijuana Enforcement Division tracks every penny. Yes, the pot shops hand over their taxes in wads of cash because federal law still views it as drug money so standard banking practices aren’t allowed. But Smith said two uniformed tax officials come to the Dinosaur town hall every month to collect and account for the marijuana tax money.

How the pot taxes could help, starting with a marshal and deputy

Smith’s voice rose a few octaves when he talked about all the ways that new revenue is so sorely needed in Dinosaur. At the top of the list is law enforcement. He said the trustees have budgeted enough to hire a new marshal and a deputy. They are going to buy the new marshal a new car and will purchase new guns.

Smith said the town also has to dump a large chunk of the revenues into repairing the town’s sewer lagoons. The Environmental Protection Agency has ordered the city to do $780,000 of work because the lagoons have been leaking.

The trustees would like to be able to start setting aside enough money to bring a gas line into Dinosaur, he said, to further economic development prospects. Ironically, a town that has to get by with propane, sits in the middle of oil and gas rich lands and once thrived on energy drilling.

The financial woes go on. Smith groused that Dinosaur has to pay taxes to the school district in Moffat County, even though most Dinosaur kids attend school in Rangely in neighboring Rio Blanco County. And the town pays taxes to support a hospital in Craig even though most Dinosaur residents head to Vernal when they need medical care.

“Everyone believes we’re sitting on a cash cow over here. We’re not,” Smith stressed. If he gets overly excited talking about it, he said it’s because he spent the previous night responding to crime and public safety calls until 3 a.m. Without an officer in the town limits, the job of policing falls to the mayor, Moffat County Sheriff KC Hume said.

The vehicle reserved for Dinosaur’s Town Marshal sits in front of Town Hall on Saturday Feb. 23, 2019. The town let its lone law officer go in January, but thinks that now that it collects $25,000 in monthly sales tax revenues from its three cannabis dispensaries, it will be easier to hire to fill the post and add a deputy. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

While the introduction of marijuana sales appears to have injected a load of small-town intrigue and controversy into Dinosaur, it wasn’t that way in the beginning. The 102-50 vote in November 2016 to allow for marijuana sales was a pretty mellow affair.

Some didn’t like the idea, including former mayor Richard Blakley, who grumbled to the Craig Daily Press that he wasn’t on board with the whole marijuana-legalization thing. He told the newspaper that he wasn’t too happy that his son Lando Blakley was going to be one of the owners of a Dinosaur pot shop.

That was then.

A few days after the marshal was fired in late January and, by coincidence, the same day town hall was searched, disgruntled citizens held a meeting in the backroom of Dinosaur’s Highway Bar and Grill. The gathering had been planned before those two town-shaking events. Folks had wanted to air other grievances against the town board. In a meeting live-streamed on Facebook, there were complaints that the board had turned on the popular marshal after he ticketed one of the trustees. There were accusations the town unfairly handled a matter of parking a semi-truck near one of the gas stations. There was a general consensus that a recall might be in order.

The organizer, Leona Hemmerich, lives eight miles outside the Dinosaur town limits but she owns two of the town’s non-pot businesses.

“We’ve let people make up laws here as they go along for too long,” she said. “And there is just major corruption going on here.”

Sheriff Hume attended that meeting and said he feels for the citizens of Dinosaur.

“I certainly understand the concerns of the residents,” he said. “I shared with them at the meeting that they are the folks tasked with holding their elected officials accountable.”

Outside of that meeting, many Dinosaur residents and business owners have clammed up when it comes to talking about those elected officials.

An employee who answered the phone at Christie’s Liquor said she couldn’t comment because two of her family members are on the town board. The owner of the store then took the phone and said he has a sign posted that states, “Politics will not be discussed in this store.”

“So, no comment,” he said before hanging up.

The Colorado bordertown of Dinosaur used to limp along on about $2,700 a month in sales tax collections. But now three recreational cannabis shops, including Dino Treats Dispensary, have opened within town limits that contribute about $25,000 in monthly tax revenue, plus pay annual licensing fees. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

At the Dino Treats dispensary, a woman who answered the phone said, “no one can talk about it.” Then she hung up.

At the nearby Dino Dispensary, a budtender did offer the information that “business has been fantastic.” But she refused to talk about Dinosaur politics for fear she would “land in hot water.”

Natalie Ricks is the chief operating officer of Rocky Mountain Cannabis, a statewide marijuana enterprise that opened the first shop in Dinosaur last spring. She had a more positive take on things. But she doesn’t live in the town.

“I’ve seen all across the state that all of a sudden this (marijuana industry) can rejuvenate an economy. It’s really cool,” she said. “I kind of liken what’s happening now to right before the Gold Rush.”

A real town, with a reason for being

Because of its location, Dinosaur might also be likened to Whiteclay, Nebraska. Whiteclay was a minuscule collection of liquor stores up against the South Dakota border and the southern edge of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Before licenses for the stores were revoked in 2017, Whiteclay’s four liquor stores existed by selling beer to American Indians who came across the border from the dry reservation.

Dinosaur is different because it consists of a real community, not just a collection of pot shops. And it has a tourist trade that gives it another reason for being.

But Dinosaur trustee Chuck Winkler said much of the traffic that now rolls into Dinosaur in off-season to visit the pot shops seems to come from Utah, where recreational marijuana is illegal.

Ricks said her shop quizzes patrons about where they intend to go from Dinosaur and warns them that crossing the state line with a purchase is illegal. Signs to that effect are posted in the store.

The amount of recreational weed sold by Dinosaur’s three shops is a whiff compared with Las Animas County, which includes the southern Colorado bordertown of Trinidad. Dinosaur stores sold about $557,000 in cannabis products in December. Las Animas County stores rang up $3.9 million.

Sgt. Nick Street with the Utah State Patrol said, thus far, Dinosaur’s weed trade hasn’t posed a problem. Possession issues are now muddied because Utah recently approved the use of medical marijuana. Since there are no medical marijuana dispensaries in Utah yet, users must cross state lines to purchase products. Technically, they must travel 87 miles on to Craig, to the only medical dispensary in Moffat County.

An empty marijuana container smashed alongside Colorado 64 in downtown Dinosaur, Colorado, on Feb. 23, 2019. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

While the investigation at Dinosaur’s town hall continues and the cash registers ring in the pot shops, Dinosaur is beginning to benefit from its new weed-based economy. The town board has a strong prospect for a new marshal, the mayor said. Work is set to begin on the sewer repairs.

And, it won’t be long before tourists heading to Dinosaur National Monument and the nearby canyons and rivers will be showing up in Dinosaur to gas up, buy a sandwich and, perhaps, purchase locally grown bud.

The pot-industry growing pains that are roiling the town and have perhaps triggered something more disquieting, likely won’t be in evidence as outsiders roll down Brontosaurus Boulevard and Stegosaurus Freeway past the town’s new green-rush industry.

The mayor said he hopes people will take note that he is still driving around Dinosaur in his old beater. He is not all of a sudden sporting a new Mercedes.

“We have all these people thinking the town is taking this new cash and putting it in their pockets,” he said. “That’s just not true.”

He attributed that kind of thinking to Dinosaur’s long spell of barely scraping by. It has been many years since anyone could even imagine there being much worth pocketing at the Dinosaur town hall.

“For all these years, we haven’t made a dime on nuthin’,” he said. “That’s why I really believe, 100 percent, it was a good thing to allow marijuana here. Without it we would be in a world of hurt.”

Correction: This story was updated to correct the town in which children from Dinosaur go to school. It is Rangely, in Rio Blanco County.

Special to The Colorado Sun Email: Twitter: @nlofholm