Monday, December 10, 2018

Legalized marijuana as an engine of rural economic growth in California

That's what this story by Nathaniel Popper in today's New York Times suggests.  The headline is, "A Struggling Desert Town Bets Its Future on Pot," and the story's dateline is Needles, California, population 4,844.  Popper's story features Jeff Williams, a former county sheriff who is now the incoming mayor of this small city.  Williams voted against legalizing marijuana in the California referendum in 2016, but now he seems to be pot's biggest proponent--at least as a tool of economic development.  Popper quotes Williams:  
If a small community like this isn’t growing, it’s dying — and that’s what we were doing.  We needed to do something.
Turns out Mr. Williams grew up in Needles, and he was there for some of its better days, when the railroad was thriving and people stopped here, on fabled Route 66. (It was also the Joad family's first stop in California as they traveled West in Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath.)

Now, however, cannabis seems to be turning Needles' economic tide.  Williams was behind a move to attract medical marijuana dispensaries to Needles back in 2012, and he's also helped lead the community's effort to become a cannabis hub.
Mr. Williams, who said he still had not smoked marijuana himself, worked with the city manager and a lawyer to put together a ballot measure in 2012 that imposed a 10 percent tax on cannabis businesses. It passed with 81 percent of the vote.
* * * 
If all the projects pan out, local officials hope they will generate more jobs — an estimated 2,100 — than Needles has altogether right now.
The Needles city manager states:  
This industry is so critical to this community’s future — we just cannot afford to screw it up.
This means all city employees take regular drug tests to ensure they don't use pot, and they are forbidden from taking so much as a cup of coffee from those in the biz. 

The town isn't just authorizing the selling marijuana (81 permits since 2015 and four stores selling to the public--about 100 times the number of dispensaries per person as is the state average), it's attracted Los Angeles-based Vertical Companies, a large cannabis producer that recently purchased 30 acres in Needles.  It has built three buildings on the outskirts of Needles, with plans for three more.  Pot is being grown in two of the buildings and the other is used to house machines that extract "potent parts of the plant."  And you gotta' love this: 
Vertical is also turning an old Kentucky Fried Chicken on Route 66 into a kitchen for candies and baked goods made with marijuana oils.
Meanwhile, property prices are up, and the pot business is expected to be the town's biggest tax revenue generator.  Furthermore, Starbucks recently decided to open a branch in Needles; it'll be the company's first.

Two things that make Needles especially attractive to growers:  cheap electricity (it owns its own generation plant) and water from the nearby Colorado River. 

What do locals think?  Well, the churches aren't crazy about this turn of events.  Popper quotes Lyn Parker, a former teacher who is secretary of the Needles Chamber of Commerce:   
I don’t think cannabis is going to drive anything away because it wasn’t coming anyway.  Would we like a small industry here instead? Sure. But we’ll take anything to help our town.
I'm reminded of the attitude many rural communities have taken toward the rural prison building boom.  They saw the jobs created as "good, clean jobs," and better than nothing.  I can't help wonder what will be the negative externalities, if any, of these developments in Needles. 

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