Oregon Town’s Marijuana Boom Yields Envy in Idaho

Oregon Town's Marijuana Boom Yields Envy in Idaho

For John Leeds, the hour-and-a-half commute to and from his job as assistant manager at Treasure Valley Cannabis Company is exhausting, but logistically inevitable.

Like about half the other employees, Mr. Leeds, 39, lives in Idaho and travels along Interstate 84, past alfalfa and onion fields, to his marijuana shop across the Oregon state line, where cannabis is legal .

“It really is two different worlds,” Mr Leeds said. “A lot of the whiplash at issue is just riding in a car up and down the highway.”

Every day, hundreds of customers and employees like Mr. Leeds make the pilgrimage from Idaho to Ontario, Ore., a small town on the banks of the Snake River that has 11 dispensaries — roughly one for every 1,000 residents. They can compare the aromas of different types of marijuana and collect staff insights on THC levels in foods.

The cannabis boom is helping drive a thriving local economy – and tax revenue that has paid for new police posts, emergency response vehicles and park and trail improvements.

Missing out on the action has become increasingly frustrating for some politicians and longtime residents in Idaho, where the population and cost of living have increased in recent years.

Because the sale or possession of marijuana is illegal at the federal level, many states — and in this case neighbors — have taken very different approaches to decriminalizing, regulating, and taxing cannabis. Since 2012, 23 states have legalized it for recreational use, and more than three dozen allow medical marijuana.

Eleven states, mostly conservative-leaning, have enacted extremely limited medical marijuana laws. Aside from cannabis-derived drugs approved by the US Food and Drug Administration for limited medical use, Idaho has not legalized the sale of any cannabis — a prohibition that has helped its more progressive neighbors.

“Our cannabis market caters almost exclusively to Idaho residents,” said Debbie Folden, Ontario’s mayor. “It’s unlike any economic boom I’ve seen in this city.”

Mason Tvert, partner at VS Strategies, a national cannabis policy and public affairs firm in Denver, said the patchwork of laws, which vary by state and often by county, have fueled similar commuter-propelled booms in other parts of the country. have been created. ,

He noted that Texans travel to Colorado to stock up on their favorite strains or edibles, and Indiana residents make the trek to Michigan. “Demand will be met either from the illegal market or from the legal market in another state,” Mr Tvert said.

That proposal, and the larger economic equation, haven’t caught on with officials in Idaho.

Last year, the state approached two million residents, a swell attributed mainly to people moving in from California and looking for an overall cheaper cost of living. Only Florida grew faster.

At the same time, property tax has increased by 20 percent since 2018. reports From the Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy, a nonpartisan group. And the state budget – currently showing a surplus – is expected to come under pressure, the group said, citing legislation that says population growth will cost the nation about $500 million over three years, bringing with it new demands on health care, education and transportation. has been deducted.

Some of the state’s longtime residents are tired of seeing marijuana tax dollars go elsewhere as prices go up as new residents arrive.

Legalizing and taxing the sale of cannabis could increase revenue and help address any budgetary concerns, said Joe Evans, lead organizer of Kind Idaho, a group pushing to legalize medical marijuana. .

“That money should not leave the state of Idaho,” said Mr. Evans, who noted the entrepreneurial spirit of the area, which is home to Joe Albertson, who started a local grocery store chain, Albertson’s, and Laid the foundation of multibillion-dollar national trade.

But for Mr. Evans, who served with the military in Iraq and Afghanistan and knows fellow veterans who use cannabis for pain relief, legalization is also about something bigger than money. It’s long past time, he said, for his state to legalize a substance that can provide relief for certain medical conditions.

He said patients who use marijuana, especially older or seriously ill Idahoans, should not drive an hour or more to Oregon.

“This is about patient support,” said Mr. Evans, who expects the state to consider a measure to legalize cannabis for medicinal use next year.

This will not be the first attempt.

Initiatives to legalize cannabis for medicinal use failed to qualify for the ballot in 2012, 2014, and 2016. In 2020, supporters of a ballot measure suspended efforts to collect signatures as the Covid-19 pandemic began, and the following year a bipartisan group of state lawmakers introduced a medical marijuana bill that failed to get out of committee. Stayed.

As those efforts began, customers in Idaho increasingly traveled to Oregon, where voters legalized cannabis for medical use in 1998 and for recreational use in 2014.

Few areas of the state have benefited as much as Malheur County, which is home to Ontario.

The city, which voted to legalize the local recreational sale of marijuana in 2018, is the only part of the county with a dispensary. Still, Malheur County brought in nearly $104 million in total cannabis sales last year, outpacing every one of the state’s 35 other counties except Multnomah, which includes Portland.

In 2020, the first full year in which Ontario allowed the sale of cannabis, the city took in $1.8 million in tax revenue as a result. The next year, revenue increased by 65 percent.

The area is a conservative pocket in a progressive state — a movement called “Greater Idaho” wants the area to secede from Oregon and become part of Idaho — and Mayor Folden, a native of Ontario, calls himself a conservative Republican.

That hasn’t blocked the city’s emergence as a cannabis capital. Tax revenue, the mayor said, has been a municipal lifeline. But the city is storing its stock, Ms. Folden said, because she expects that within five years, Idaho will move forward with some sort of legalization.

“We know this won’t last forever, so we’re being prudent,” Ms Folden said. “We know that the economic wind, as they say, can change.”

in the fall, a Voting for the Idaho StatesmanThe Boise newspaper found that 68 percent of residents supported legalizing marijuana for medicinal purposes. For recreational use, 48 percent supported legalization, while 41 percent opposed it.

Idaho Governor Brad Little, who is in his second term, strongly opposes marijuana legalization. Mr. Little, a Republican, said in an emailed statement that “the legalization of marijuana leads to many unintended consequences.”

But some local politicians in Idaho are beginning to consider the economics of the issue.

Boise Councilman, Patrick Bagant, said the need for alternative forms of tax revenue was growing.

“Legalizing marijuana could help bring in different forms of cash,” Mr. Bagent said. “Just look around the country – we as a state need to be more forward-looking.”

Adam Watkins, a software engineer and a constituent of Mr. Bagant, has lived in the city’s West End neighborhood for the past decade. His home has doubled in value since 2018, when he paid $3,200 in property taxes; Now he pays closer to $4,200.

“You look at other states that legalized marijuana decades ago when it comes to medical marijuana, and you just can’t help but think, why are we so far behind on this issue?” said Mr. Watkins, who supports legalization for philosophical and financial reasons.

“It is a drug with proven health effects, and we are leaving it to other states to resolve the issue,” he said. “We’re turning a blind eye like it’s not an issue, when it clearly is.”

On a recent afternoon in Ontario, red, white and blue license plates emblazoned with the phrase “Scenic Idaho” lined the parking lot of Treasure Valley Cannabis. (A federal law prohibits the transport of marijuana between states.)

Mr. Leeds manages a staff of 45 employees four days a week. He used to work five days, but made a deal with owner Jeremy Archey to work four so he could cut down on his commute.

That day, Mr. Leeds and Mr. Archie pass out vape pens, different strains of cannabis, and sweatshirts praising the company and the state.

They greeted customers and shared stories of patients battling health issues like cancer who use their products to ease pain. On one wall hangs a poster board announcing a 25 percent discount for customers car-pooling with at least three people.

A small gesture of thanks, said Mr. Archie, for his Idaho customers.

“The Idaho market has made this a very successful business,” he said.

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