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Idaho customers breathe life into tiny Oregon marijuana town

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Huntington has become a hot destination, even if most visitors only stay long enough to buy Oregon 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 Oregon 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 Oregon marijuana within their borders.

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