Idahoans buying marijuana help boost economy of tiny Oregon town

Mar 20th, 2017 | By | Category: Featured
Diane Matthews, co-owner of 420Ville in Huntington, Oregon, says she is surprised at the diverse clientele of her marijuana dispensary. Very few of her customers come in just to get high, she said. Most are looking for relief from a variety of ailments. Many Idahoans are going to Huntington to buy marijuana.

Diane Matthews, co-owner of 420Ville in Huntington, Oregon, says she is surprised at the diverse clientele of her marijuana dispensary. Very few of her customers come in just to get high, she said. Most are looking for relief from a variety of ailments. Many Idahoans are going to Huntington to buy marijuana.

By Sven Berg
Idaho Statesman

HUNTINGTON, Ore. — Huntington has become a hot destination, even if most visitors only stay long enough to buy marijuana products from the dispensaries in town.

Not much more than a year ago, the city was fading, its population slowly diminishing as it has in countless small towns across the American West. Businesses like the truck stop east of town closed, and the flow of visitors thinned out after the freeway bypassed the city.

Then the green gold arrived, and Huntington underwent a mini-boom. On a busy day, the number of visitors arriving might outnumber the city’s 435 citizens. Many of them come from Idaho, ready to spend their money on a drug that’s illegal in their home state.

“A lot of times they have to hang around quite a while,” City Councilman Chuck Guerri said. “When (the dispensaries) are really busy, it’s two, two-and-a-half hours before (customers) get their product. So they mingle and they go to the store. They sit and have a hamburger or something. And all that helps. Every little bit of it helps when you’re a small town.”

City Hall might reap enough tax money from marijuana and related sales to double the city’s $200,000 budget.

These benefits appear to have eased the concerns of some residents who opposed legalizing the drug, which the federal government ranks alongside heroin, bath salts, LSD and other bad-reputation substances.

“There are a few people that are still very much against it,” said Shellie Nash, Huntington’s deputy city recorder. “And we expect that that’s always going to be that way. But we have had people that were against it at first that have since seen the impact it is having on the town and have seen that it’s not bringing in riffraff and stuff like they originally expected. So, you know, some people, I think, have accepted it.”

THE IDAHO CUSTOMERS

Drive 30 miles southeast of Huntington on Interstate 84, and you’ll cross the Snake River into Idaho, where marijuana is illegal and the governor, C.L. “Butch” Otter, is sick of neighboring states flouting the federal government’s ban of the drug.

Otter recently challenged President Donald Trump to reverse his predecessor’s failure to enforce federal marijuana laws.

With 660,000 people, the Treasure Valley, which starts somewhere around the border, is home to the biggest population center in the region. It’s no coincidence that a big chunk of Huntington marijuana dispensaries’ customers hails from the Treasure Valley. Shortly after 9 a.m. on Feb. 24, 12 of 14 cars parked at 420Ville, one of Huntington’s two dispensaries, had Idaho license plates.

Customers ranged from early 20s to perhaps 70. They wore everything from cowboy boots and snapped shirts to skater clothes.

They spend up to $14.40 for a gram of marijuana. A printout estimates the content of THC in each strain and predicts its effects, ranging from “giggly and euphoric” and “cerebral elevation” to “heavy, sedating, medicating.” One customer said a single gram lasts him several days.

Buds for smoking aren’t the only products for sale. There are oils for vaping and THC-laced snacks. Some products don’t even contain THC but instead have CBD, a marijuana extract oil that doesn’t cause THC’s psychoactive high.

Most of the customers are there for medical reasons, 420Ville co-owner Diane Matthews said. Many of them buy the dispensaries’ products legally but then carry them illegally into Idaho. To Idaho customers, the benefits — a reliable supply, a higher quality, more consistent product, avoiding shady dealers — outweigh the inconvenience and risk of a trip to Oregon and back.

For Otter’s administration, though, marijuana imports are more than a minor irritation.

Elisha Figueroa, who heads up Idaho’s Office of Drug Policy, said legalizing marijuana in Oregon is like illegally polluting rivers or the air in a way that damages neighboring states.

Unlike pollution, marijuana mostly affects the people who are breaking the law. But the public is on the hook for law enforcement, incarceration and public health costs. Figueroa pointed to studies that found a variety of marijuana-related safety and public health problems have surfaced in states where the drug is legal.

“All of these things cost taxpayers an enormous amount of money because of the bad decisions of our neighboring states,” she said.

No dollar estimates were available as to how much marijuana-related law enforcement, incarceration and public health problems are costing Idaho.

Figueroa said she’s confident the president will crack down on marijuana sales in states that have legalized it.

“The Trump administration has already said that they are not going to continue to turn a blind eye to at least recreational marijuana,” she said. “Now, how they go about that remains to be seen.”

In January and February 2016, the Huntington council passed laws regulating where and how marijuana businesses could operate.

Shortly afterward, Huntington’s first marijuana dispensary, 420Ville, opened. In October, HotBox Farms opened a few hundred feet to the east. They are the closest dispensaries to the Treasure Valley, the area’s largest source of potential customers. Burnt River Farms, a business that grows marijuana plants, has also come to Huntington.

As Guerri had earlier predicted, the dispensaries snapped up existing buildings that had housed traditional services.

The owners of 420Ville bought a mechanical service shop. HotBox Farms replaced a small market.

“Two years ago, I could get a tire fixed or I could get a battery for my car, and we had two stores,” Guerri said. “Well, now we lost a grocery store. We lost a service station. And the only store we have left that has the fuel has been sold to HotBox Farms. And we could wind up with no services except pot.”

City Clerk Tracy McCue said HotBox Farms’ owners indeed have bought J&M Country Store, a small grocer with a fuel pump that lies halfway between the two dispensaries. But HotBox hasn’t applied for permits to change the use of the store, she said. Instead, the company filed an application to build greenhouses for growing marijuana on two lots just east of the market.

Loss of services is a real problem for Huntington’s small population. On the other hand, signs point to an economic revival led by legal weed.

The dispensaries have about 20 full-time employees between them. In Boise, that would barely register on the economic development radar. In Huntington, it’s a major upgrade.

There’s also a lot more traffic coming into town. On a busy day, the dispensaries might serve a total of 600 customers. Many, likely most, of those people come from out of town. That should encourage retailers to fill the void of services lost to the dispensaries.

A new hot dog stand opened up next to 420Ville. A smoke shop that sells pipes and other paraphernalia has taken root. And a small restaurant that would offer beer and wine is in the works just west of the country store, McCue said.

Young said the dispensary owners have been good corporate citizens, too, helping raise money for nonprofit organizations and charitable efforts.

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