Goold: Will a small town’s underground economy get legitimized?
Writers on the Range
A little-known battle in this country’s marijuana war is underway in a small town of 1,500 in western Colorado, known — if at all — for its underground coal mines, 12 wineries, a microbrewery, organic vegetables and fruit, and, its perfect climate for growing pot.
The town is Paonia, and in November, its registered voters will decide whether to allow the sale of pot for recreational use. Looking back at the history of this town, nestled at the base of 11,400-foot Mount Lamborn on the North Fork of the Gunnison River, it is clear that the battle lines in today’s culture war were drawn long ago.
A hippie invasion in the early 1970s, and then another following the Rainbow Gathering held at nearby Overland Reservoir in 1992, brought in generations of pot farmers. The pot they’ve grown is known as Paonia Purple, Paonia Paralyzer or P-Bud. So many rural myths have risen describing the origin of this potent strain that no one around town knows for sure what it was originally called. But a story has it that Paonia Purple was written up in the pot periodical High Times, and that it once won the coveted Cannabis Cup.
These factors, plus a 60-40 vote in Paonia approving Amendment 64 in 2012, make it seem like pot shops in the town are a matter of manifest destiny. But not so fast. There’s another side to the history of this small town just a mile off a state highway. Paonia was colonized decades ago by fervent Christians, and the scions of all of those church-going, often former military, God-fearing Christians have lined up to oppose retail marijuana.
Black-and-red lawn signs all around town say, “Vote No to Marijuana Establishments. Protect Paonia and the Kids.” Former Paonia Mayor Ron Rowell is one of the architects of this grassroots effort against retail marijuana, and he’s the perfect person to ask about the signs: Rowell and his wife, Deb, created and distributed them.
Protect Paonia and the kids from what? “Changing of the morals and values within our community,” Rowell says.
Is your opposition based primarily on fear? “No. It’s based on morals,” Rowell says. “General Christian kind of morals, plus it is the way this town has been for the last 50 years. We protect our kids, we’re heavily influenced by a Christian base and we would like to see it stay that way.”
Actually, it’s been that way in Paonia for a lot longer than 50 years. On Nov. 20, 1924, the first story about marijuana was printed in the local newspaper, the Paonian: “Marijuana, the ‘Indian Hemp’ weed which flourishes in Colorado, has made its appearance in the Paonia district. … The danger from marijuana lies not in the fact that it is at all pleasing to the smoker, but in its insidiousness, in the fact that young fools can acquire a terrible habit without any great fears of detection. …”
Ninety years after the Paonian editorialized that marijuana makes young fools acquire terrible habits, Rowell’s signs around town predict even worse if the kids aren’t protected.
When I was elected as a trustee of the town of Paonia in April 2012, never in my wildest imagination did I think this would be the biggest issue during my tenure. I voted for Amendment 64 because I don’t think I should go to jail if I have an ounce of pot in my pocket, and because my vote made a statement against the failed war on drugs that defined American culture for most of my life.
The amendment also allows for municipalities to collect taxes from the sale of retail marijuana, and that’s where voters have very real problems. Even when small towns are dying around the West from lack of jobs and weak retail businesses, some Paonia residents are loath to collect money from a plant that the federal government still declares to be illegal. And there are the children to protect.
I see valid arguments on both sides, so I’m sitting on a very sharp fence. I won’t decide my vote until I’m looking at the ballot. And unlike four of my fellow trustees, whose yards are filled with signs expressing their views, I don’t feel like it’s my job or my duty to tell people how to vote.
This debate over retail sales of pot embodies the conflict between a town’s heritage and modern times. On Nov. 5, regardless of the outcome of the election, I doubt that this conflict will be settled. Meanwhile, yard signs are blooming — just like Paonia Paralyzer.
Eric Goold is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News (hcn.org). He lives in Paonia.
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It was your typical ranch truck that stopped next to us — dirty, dented and hauling a horse trailer. Inside, silhouetted by the sun, were two cowboy hats and a gun rack.