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Legal weed, Idaho customers breathe life into tiny Oregon town, irk Otter

The pot business in Huntington, Oregon

The small town in eastern Oregon has been the closest location to the Treasure Valley that legally sells marijuana, and 420Ville is one of several dispensaries in the area.
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The small town in eastern Oregon has been the closest location to the Treasure Valley that legally sells marijuana, and 420Ville is one of several dispensaries in the area.

This story appeared in the Idaho Statesman March 4, 2017.

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 has been the case in countless small towns across the American West. Businesses like the truck stop east of town closed, and the flow of visitors thinned 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 awhile,” 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.”

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 Republican governor, Butch Otter, is sick of neighboring states flouting the federal government’s ban of the drug.

Otter recently challenged new 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 hail 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 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.

To Otter, 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.”

LOCAL CHOICE

On Nov. 24, 2015, Huntington Mayor Travis Young faced the most controversial decision of his time in office.

Somehow, after arguing about marijuana for a year, the city’s decision on whether to legalize it fell to Young alone.

In 2014, Oregon voters passed Measure 91, legalizing recreational use of pot statewide. Residents of Baker County, where Huntington is located, opposed Measure 91. The state gave cities and counties until December 2015 to ban or accept legalized marijuana within their borders.

That set off a hard conversation, especially in conservative eastern Oregon, about values, crime and economics. Huntington held some 130 meetings in 2015, mostly focusing on whether to legalize pot, Nash said.

“There were some cases where we actually had to move our council meetings ... to our VFW hall because we had so many people in attendance,” she said. “Marijuana pretty much consumed our entire year.”

In the end, most of the cities in eastern Oregon banned marijuana, forgoing the tax money from sales. That revenue includes receipts from a 3 percent tax municipal governments can tack on to sales for their own coffers.

In Huntington, three council members — Eileen Driver, Carol Allender and Jack Gerould — voted to allow marijuana sales within city limits. The other three — Guerri, Rhonda Bronson and Cindy Deck — voted to ban pot.

Guerri predicted that legalizing marijuana would bring in businesses that would push out other services, so that “you might wind up driving 28 miles (to Ontario) for a gallon of milk.”

‘KIND OF LIKE ALCOHOL’

The council’s tie left the whole decision up to the mayor, who votes only when the council is deadlocked. Young, who had never broken a tie before and never did again, said he wasn’t nervous.

“Everybody knew my stand on it before I voted,” he said. “I even told them, ‘If this comes to a tied vote, I will vote to let the dispensaries in. In some cases, I think the council actually kind of made it a tie so it all fell on my shoulders at the end, you know?”

True to his word, Young voted to allow marijuana sales in Huntington. He had two main reasons. The first was the financial benefit the city stood to gain. The second was more abstract.

“Kind of like alcohol, I guess, if you were to make pot where somebody can go in and buy it legally, and they know what they’re getting ... maybe the people that are selling it on the street would go out of business,” Young said. “I kind of hoped it would keep it out of the kids’ hands, because the people selling it on the street would have to leave because they weren’t making any money.”

Some evidence suggests children are actually more likely to use marijuana after it becomes legal.

In January and February 2016, the 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.

Young has since stepped down as mayor to spend more time on his electrical contracting business.

RETAIL RIDE

As Guerri 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.

TAXES VS. CRIME

The city of Huntington won’t know how much tax money it can expect from the dispensaries until the state of Oregon starts disbursing it.

The first installment is due soon. Nash, the deputy recorder, said 420Ville’s owners estimate the city will receive $100,000 per year from that one store. The city’s general fund is about $200,000 per year, so if HotBox Farms sees sales similar to what 420Ville is claiming, the dispensaries alone could double Huntington’s budget. That doesn’t count additional revenue from Burnt River Farms or the other new businesses in town.

Nash said the city anticipates splitting its windfall evenly between its six major accounts: law enforcement, fire, water, sewer, streets and a fund that pays for management of city-owned properties.

And besides the city’s own marijuana tax money, Huntington stands to receive some money from the state. Oregon allocates 10 percent of the money it takes in from a 17 percent tax on marijuana sales to law enforcement initiatives in cities and counties, Department of Revenue spokeswoman Joy Krawczyk said.

The law enforcement fund may need additional money someday.

Baker County Sheriff Travis Ash, whose office provides law enforcement services in Huntington, said his deputies logged 68 cases last year that were significant enough to merit written reports.

That’s an increase of about 80 percent over the average number of cases reported per year since 2012. Without doing an exhaustive analysis, Ash said, it’s tough to pin down exactly what is causing the increase.

The sheriff doesn’t hide his anti-marijuana stance, but he acknowledged that 2016’s numbers could-be a one-year blip, just as 2015’s numbers were unusually low. Some cases undoubtedly stem from the simple fact that more people are coming through Huntington these days.

But Ash suspects there’s a link between Huntington’s sudden easy access to pot and an increase in criminal activity. Partly, that’s because most of the cases in the city appear to involve locals, not visitors. The type of crimes runs the gamut, from theft to assault and battery.

“I can’t say it’s a different type (of crime). It’s just there’s more of it,” Ash said. “I am concerned about the caseload with what we have going on down there. I really am.”

Neither Guerri, who voted to ban pot sales, nor Young, the former mayor, thinks the dispensaries are to blame for Huntington’s number of law enforcement cases.

BORDER CONTROL

Crime in Huntington isn’t Sheldon Kelley’s concern.

The Idaho State Police operations major’s job is responding to an increasing amount of marijuana entering Idaho, some of it doubtless from Huntington.

Since Oregon and other neighboring states legalized weed, Kelley said, troopers have seen more of the substance in the possession of drivers and suspects they encounter.

“It’s not a new phenomenon,” Kelley said. “You’ve had medical marijuana available in Oregon, in several other states in the Northwest and the West. All that made an increase in activity here in Idaho. With the legalizing of recreational use in Washington, Colorado and Oregon, that also has increased what we see here in Idaho.”

Kelley said ISP hasn’t set up specific operations to catch people who are bringing pot into Idaho, and does not intend to.

“The fact that our neighboring states have legalized what is illegal in Idaho doesn’t mean we’re going to go ahead and profile,” ISP spokesman Tim Marsano said.

Nevertheless, troopers say they are finding a lot more marijuana. Some of it comes in small quantities and belongs to people who cross the border to buy personal stashes.

But legalized marijuana also has created an easy supply for dealers, Kelley said. He believes some legal grow operations in states such as Oregon are selling part of their crop illegally to dealers who then transport the product to Idaho and sell it here.

Besides the drug itself, he said, that increases the risk of violence and other problems, such as Boise’s double-murder case in 2014 that stemmed from the theft of 30 pounds of marijuana.

“Anytime money is involved, it attracts a certain amount of the wrong crowd, for lack of a better word,” Kelley said. “Anytime you have that much cash, and marijuana’s a cash business, you get a rise in other criminal activity as well.”

Is marijuana bad for you?

Health is the central question in America’s battle over whether marijuana should be legalized.

Both sides are dug in. Elisha Figueroa, head of Idaho’s Office of Drug Policy, points to studies suggesting that drivers who test positive for marijuana are more dangerous; that the drug is often contaminated with harmful substances like heavy metals and pesticides; and that marijuana legalization in states such as Colorado is linked to increases in hospital visits.

The people who buy or sell marijuana and related products downplay the negative effects of using those products. Diane Matthews, co-owner of 420Ville, a dispensary in Huntington, Ore., said the majority of her customers are treating various ailments, such as pain from cancer, a lack of appetite, arthritis and post-traumatic stress disorder. Some are even using marijuana to help wean themselves off stronger drugs like opiates, Matthews said.

“Very seldom do you hear someone come in and say, ‘I just want to get high,’ ” she said.

In fact, 420Ville sells products whose effects aren’t mind-altering, said Mandy Bravo, who works at the store. Instead of THC, the chemical that gives consumers the feeling of being high, these products have only CBD, an extract from marijuana that has no psycho-active effects.

The same types of products are available at Hot Box Farms, another Huntington dispensary. Heidi Meland, a manager there, said she works with customers to design treatment regimes that are effective at battling pain and other maladies. Knowing how to do that takes years of studying and close communication with the customer, Meland and Bravo said.

Figueroa isn’t buying any of this.

“From a scientific and medicine perspective, it is unfair for us to send people to a dispensary, where they are not receiving medical care,” she said.

In 2015, after vetoing a bill that would have allowed CBD to be used in treatment of children with epilepsy, Idaho Gov. Butch Otter allowed a limited number of children to participate in an experimental CBD program.

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