Oregon Town’s marijuana boom sparks envy in Idaho
For John Leeds, the hour and a half commute to and from his job as an assistant manager at Treasure Valley Cannabis Company is exhausting but logistically unavoidable.
Like almost half the other employees, Mr. Leeds, 39, lives in Idaho and drives along Interstate 84, past sprawling alfalfa and onion fields, to the marijuana store just across the Oregon state line, where cannabis is legal.
“It’s really two different worlds,” said Mr Leeds. “A lot of whiplash on this subject, alone during a car ride on the freeway.”
Every day, hundreds of customers and workers like Mr. Leeds make the pilgrimage from Idaho to Ontario, Oregon, a small town on the Snake River that has 11 dispensaries — about one for every 1,000 people. You can compare the flavors of different marijuana strains and get the staff’s insights into THC levels in edibles.
The cannabis boom is helping to fuel a thriving local economy — and tax revenues have funded new police posts, emergency vehicles, and park and trail improvements.
Missing out on the action is increasingly frustrating for some politicians and longtime residents of Idaho, where the population and cost of living have risen sharply in recent years.
As the sale or possession of marijuana remains illegal at the federal level, many states — and in this case, neighboring ones — have taken drastically different approaches to whether and how cannabis should be decriminalized, regulated, and taxed. As of 2012, 23 states have legalized it for recreational use, and more than three dozen allow medical marijuana.
Eleven states, most of which are conservative-leaning, have extremely limited medical marijuana laws. Aside from cannabis-derived drugs approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for limited medical uses, Idaho hasn’t legalized the sale of cannabis — a ban that has helped its more progressive neighbors.
“Our cannabis market caters almost exclusively to Idaho residents,” said Ontario Mayor Debbie Folden. “It was an economic upswing the likes of which this city has never seen before.”
The patchwork of laws, which vary by state and often by county, have fueled similar commuter-driven booms in other parts of the country, said Mason Tvert, partner at VS Strategies, a national cannabis policy and public affairs firm Affairs in Denver.
Texans travel to Colorado to stock up on their favorite flavors or edibles, and Indiana residents are making their way to Michigan, he said. “Demand is met either through the illegal market or through a legal market in another state,” Mr Tvert said.
This suggestion and the larger economic equation have not escaped the attention of Idaho officials.
Last year, the state had nearly two million residents, an increase largely due to people moving out of California in search of a generally cheaper cost of living. Only Florida grew faster.
At the same time, property taxes have risen 20 percent since 2018, according to a report by the Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy, a nonpartisan group. And the state budget, currently in surplus, is likely to come under pressure, the group noted, citing legislation that will cut income taxes by about $500 million over three years, even as population growth creates new demands for health care, education and transportation.
Some longtime residents of the state are tired of watching marijuana taxpayer dollars go elsewhere while newcomers push prices up.
Legalizing and taxing cannabis sales could bring in revenue and help offset any budgetary problems, said Joe Evans, one of the main organizers of Kind Idaho, a group campaigning for the legalization of medical marijuana.
“This money shouldn’t leave the state of Idaho,” said Mr. Evans, who highlighted the entrepreneurial spirit of the region that is home to Joe Albertson, who founded local grocery chain Albertsons and laid the foundation for a multi-billion dollar company. dollar national business.
But for Mr Evans, who has served in the army in Iraq and Afghanistan and knows comrades-in-arms who use cannabis for pain relief, legalization is also about something bigger than money. It’s about time, he said, for his state to legalize a substance that could provide relief for some illnesses.
Patients who use marijuana, especially elderly or chronically ill Idahoans, shouldn’t have to drive an hour or more to Oregon, he said.
“This is about patient advocacy,” said Mr Evans, who hopes the state will consider a move to legalize cannabis for medicinal purposes next year.
It wouldn’t be the first try.
Initiatives to legalize cannabis for medicinal purposes failed to qualify for voting in 2012, 2014 and 2016. In 2020, supporters of a ballot measure halted efforts to collect signatures due to the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, and a bipartisan initiative was shelved the following year. A group of state legislators introduced a medical marijuana bill, but it didn’t pass Committee came.
When those efforts failed, customers in Idaho increasingly made their way to Oregon, where voters legalized cannabis for medicinal purposes in 1998 and for recreational use in 2014.
Few areas of the state have benefited as much as Malheur County, home of Ontario.
The city, which voted to legalize local recreational marijuana sales in 2018, is the only part of the county with dispensaries. Still, Malheur County generated about $104 million in total cannabis sales last year, surpassing every one of the state’s 35 other counties except Multnomah, which includes Portland.
In 2020, Ontario’s first full year allowing the sale of cannabis, the city raked in $1.8 million in tax revenue. In the next year, sales increased by 65 percent.
The area is a conservative nest in a progressive state — a movement called Greater Idaho wants the region to break away from Oregon and become part of Idaho — and Mayor Folden, an Ontario native, describes herself as a conservative Republican.
That hasn’t stopped the city from becoming the cannabis capital. The tax revenue was a lifeline for the community, the mayor said. But the city is stocking up on reserves, Ms Folden said, because she expects Idaho to move forward with some form of legalization within five years.
“We know it won’t stay like this forever, so we’re cautious,” Ms Folden said. “We know that the economic winds, as they say, could change.”
In the fall, a poll for The Idaho Statesman, a Boise-based newspaper, found that 68 percent of residents supported legalizing marijuana for medical purposes. For recreational use, 48 percent supported legalization, while 41 percent opposed it.
Gov. Brad Little of Idaho, who is in his second term, is strongly opposed to legalizing marijuana. In an emailed statement, Mr. Little, a Republican, said that “the legalization of marijuana has numerous unintended consequences.”
But some local Idaho politicians have begun to think about the economic aspects of the problem.
Patrick Bageant, a Boise City Councilman, said the need for alternative forms of tax revenue is becoming more pressing.
“Legalizing marijuana can help bring in various forms of cash,” Mr. Bageant said. “Just look around the country – we as a state should be more forward-thinking.”
Adam Watkins, a software developer and member of Mr. Bageant, has lived in the city’s West End for a decade. His home has doubled in value since 2018, when he paid $3,200 in property taxes; Now he’s paying nearly $4,200.
“When you look at other states that legalized marijuana decades ago, when it comes to medical marijuana, you just can’t help but think, ‘Why are we so backward on this issue?'” said Mr. Watkins, who explained the legalization for philosophical reasons and tax reasons.
“This is a drug with proven health effects and we’re just leaving that problem to other states to solve,” he added. “We blindly turn around like that’s not a problem when it clearly is.”
Red, white, and blue “Scenic Idaho” license plates lined the Treasure Valley Cannabis parking lot on an Ontario afternoon. (Federal law prohibits the transportation of marijuana between states.)
Mr Leeds manages a workforce of 45 people four days a week. He used to work five days but struck a deal with owner Jeremy Archie to work four days to shorten his commute.
That day, Mr Leeds and Mr Archie walked past e-cigarettes, various strains of cannabis and sweatshirts praising the company and the state.
They greeted customers and shared stories of patients struggling with health conditions like cancer who used their products to relieve pain. A billboard hung on one wall announcing a 25 percent discount for customers who carpooled with at least three people.
A small gesture of thanks, Mr. Archie said, for their customers in Idaho.
“The Idaho market has made this a very successful business,” he said.