Customers line up outside Hotbox Farms, a retail marijuana store in Huntington before it opens. (The Enterprise/Jayme Fraser)

HUNTINGTON – Marijuana has become the largest business in this remote Oregon community.

Its two retailers of recreational marijuana last year logged 370,000 transactions worth $14 million, according to state regulators.

They will shred that number in 2018. So far, sales have totaled $12.6 million, with months to go.

That success is helping motivate campaigns in Malheur County to reverse the ban on such sales.

A measure is headed for the November ballot to legalize recreational marijuana sales in Ontario. Petitioners hope to do the same for rural areas of Malheur County.

During this spring’s debate over an Ontario sales tax, marijuana enthusiasts promoted legalization as a way to bolster government finances and save public programs.

They pointed up the freeway to Huntington as proof of what could happen.

The Malheur Enterprise made repeated visits to the community to assess what this green industry has done, and what might be ahead for Ontario.

In some ways, marijuana has been good to Huntington.

With taxes on marijuana, the city government has seen its budget soar. City officials are investing in new equipment. They plan to pay off city bonds early, cutting the tax bill for local residents.

The town is busier than it has been in years, with a steady stream of traffic, mostly Idaho buyers who each spend an average of $40 on marijuana products.

But the boom has its limits.

Some local businesses say they aren’t seeing those buyers staying around to drop money in their stores.

Some residents aren’t happy that taxpayers are footing the bill for portable toilets to handle the visitors. 

The city had to pay its public works staff overtime to do extra cleaning as well.

And reports of petty crime have surged.

Still, store owners, city councilors, and the mayor are cautiously optimistic that the influx of cash will continue. They worry it won’t.

Bill Burley, retired railroad worker and the city’s informal historian, is steeped in the boom and bust cycles his town has seen.

“I don’t know how long this boom is going to last,” said Burley. “I like to tell people to have big dreams for their community.”

Booms and busts

Huntington has seen boom times before.

Prairie schooners traveling along the Oregon Trail made this a lively stop in the 1860s.

When pioneer travel tapered off, Huntington stalled.

Later, the little town boomed with railroad crews.

And then they were gone.

Now, legal marijuana is bringing money and people back to town again.

The town of 450 residents waded slowly into the legal marijuana industry, at first allowing only medical marijuana.

Then came a crucial vote at the Huntington City Council in November 2015. That was a year after Oregonians voted to put the state in the recreational marijuana business.

After months of debate, the seven-person council considered allowing recreational sales in town. As the vote was called, six council members split 3-3.

That meant then-mayor Travis Young would, by city rule, cast the deciding vote. He voted yes, and Huntington was open for business.

In the following months, Hotbox Farms bought the building that housed the old market, the only grocery for miles. Earlier, 420Ville bought the gas station that had long been home to the town’s mechanic. 

City voters also imposed a 3 percent sales tax on marijuana, later realizing new revenue for their city government that was far beyond what was anticipated.

Tim Mathews, who owns Grady’s Tavern, is among the residents who initially supported the arrival of pot shops but has since settled into frustration.

He felt that most citizens weren’t very informed about how the new industry would develop or what rules would be involved, saying the city should have done work to educate residents. 

Mathews wanted to start a pot business himself by turning his tavern into a weed shop. He found out he couldn’t.

“Suddenly there was a city ordinance saying that you have to be 1,000 feet apart,” he said, pointing out that his place in the town’s small business district is too close to the existing dispensaries in town. “The city should have decided on how they were going to regulate the marijuana industry before they let businesses come in.”

The Idaho rush hour

On a bright, hot, Saturday morning, a line forms outside of Hotbox Farms and snakes around the corner of Washington and First streets.

The business promotes itself as “home to free smells and fantastic daily specials.” A social media commenter said, “I had to wait for 30 minutes but it was worth every second.”

Down the street, another crowd gathers outside the former gas station that now houses 420Ville.

The license plates on the parked cars suggest that a good portion of the dispensaries’ customers come from Idaho. Huntington is the nearest place people from the Treasure Valley can buy recreational pot legally.

In Idaho, marijuana remains illegal to possess or sell. Possessing three ounces of weed or less can lead to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine. Even just being high could land offenders in jail for six months.

That’s not deterring people.

“About 96 percent of our customers come from Idaho,” said Ryan Matthews, an employee at 420Ville. He added that they get hundreds of customers on any given day.

Mandy Schofield and her two friends were among the Idahoans in line on a recent Saturday. Like many others, she had carpooled from Boise to Huntington, finding a ride on a local Facebook group. 

“Last time I saw it, there were like 67 comments for this week,” she said.

Justin Nowak of Nampa and his wife Rebecca travel to Huntington once a month because it’s easier to buy weed there for medical needs. 

“My wife was diagnosed with breast cancer, and she’d rather do things naturally to [suppress] the pain,” Nowak said, as he waited for his wife in his van with his three children.

Era of ‘green gold’

Every time a customer buys in Huntington, City Hall benefits.

Last year, the city expected to collect $120,000 in marijuana taxes. Instead, it got $565,000. Licensing and application fees added another $30,000.

So far this year, marijuana taxes have put another $380,000 into the city treasury. Those taxes and fees are expected to cover about half the city’s current budget of $1 million.

It’s no wonder some call marijuana “green gold.” 

The city is transforming with the money, planning to pave two roads and buy equipment such as a backhoe, said Councilman John McLean.

Recently, city officials decided to pay off a water bond, according to Stan Mitchell, a Baker City accountant who handles the city’s budget. That bond otherwise would have been funded by local property taxes.

Mayor Candy Howland said marijuana has divided the community for years, evident during public meetings in 2015 to consider marijuana sales.

“Fifty percent want them here and 50 percent don’t,” she said.

She said some long standing business owners report a boost in sales and others say they have only gained new frustrations from the weekend crowds. 

One of the biggest problems Howland pointed out was the lack of restrooms for pot shop customers. The city had to park portable restrooms near Hotbox for the hoard of customers since the business did not have its own.

“Local businesses didn’t want people using their restrooms and not buying,” Howland said.

Marie Wilcox can see the portable potties from the window of Huntington Bait and Tackle, which has been in business since 1996. She said she's seen more customers since the marijuana shops came to town. However, she described issues with parking.

"There’s just been more traffic since they came in and sometimes I get the overflow of parking outside my store," said Wilcox, who noted it is worse on Friday and Saturday afternoons. "But I need that space for the customers that have been with me for 22 years. We’ve never have had issues with parking before until the dispensaries came into town, which create a burden for my loyal customers who purchase huge quantities of ice and bait and tackle. Other than that, I have no issues.”

Wilcox lamented that the town has few businesses other than the marijuana stores.

“We only have a couple of businesses left – a tavern, a country store and two restaurants,” she said.

But there have been newcomers to the business community.

One of the newest restaurants in town is Burnt River Junction, operating in a small shotgun- style cabin. Owner Janice Darelli owned a restaurant in Idaho but decided to start this restaurant to take advantage of the booming cannabis economy. 

“We get some customers from the dispensaries, but not a lot, really,” said Darelli.

Still, she has grown to love the town and plans to stay open regardless of what happens to Huntington’s cannabis industry. 

At the nearby Golden Nugget Coffee and Cafe, Jenny and Justin Long have a different plan. 

The Idaho couple brought their mobile cafe to Huntington a few weeks ago to sell to customers at the Huntington pot shops, just as they do in Sumpter. If Ontario were to legalize cannabis sales, they said they would follow the customers and haul their yellow mobile shop there.  

Crime in Huntington

Some opponents of lifting the ban of cannabis sales in Ontario say they fear an increase in crime. While the number of cases handled by police has increased in Huntington, officials say it has been mostly minor crimes. 

Huntington pays for police protection from the Baker County Sheriff’s Office. 

That cost the city $54,000 a year for 80 hours of service each month prior to the emergence of the dispensaries. Now, the cost is $74,000 annually for 90 hours of service per month, according to Sheriff Travis Ash.

Ash said his caseload has increased in Huntington. In 2015, his office dealt with 24 cases. In the year after the city legalized marijuana sales, the number jumped to 68 cases. So far in 2018, his department has already logged 35 cases. 

Ash was not surprised by the increase.

“It’s just more people and more activity down there,” he said.

Looking to future

Burley, the local historian, stares at the empty storefronts and vacant lots that line downtown and worries about the future of his town. 

He thinks Huntington might soon have a cannabis bust and Ontario legalizing sales could be the trigger. 

He pointed to Auburn, once a city bustling with people drawn by gold rush optimism and now a ghost town.

“Back then, everybody wanted to go where the gold was. And when the gold played out then, there would be another strike found somewhere, and that’s where all the people went,” he said.

He said Huntington’s fortunes could change if Ontario becomes a pot market.

He could be right.

Half of Idahoans questioned recently said they would go to Ontario instead for their purchases.

Steven Meland, a partner in Hotbox Farms, is chairing the Marijuana Ad Hoc Comittee in Ontario that is considering rules should recreational sales be approved by voters.

The owners of 420Ville already have acquired property in Ontario, planning to move their business if voters repeal the ban.

“If Ontario legalizes it, then this town is going to go back to being a ghost town,” said Ryan Matthews. 

Kristine de Leon: [email protected] or 541-473-3377.

CORRECTION: The city of Huntington is using grant money for its sewer treatment plant work. Marijuana tax revenue goes into the city general fund, where it is used for a variety of city projects. An earlier version of this story indicated that marijuana tax revenue was directly applied to the sewer plant. And 420Ville bought its property in Huntington before Hotbox Farms bought its building. The earlier version incorrectly reversed the order of those events. The Enterprise apologizes for the errors.

(Graphic by Candace Johnson)

The map shows the number of retail outlets in each Oregon county, with the darker shades correlating with higher numbers. (Source: OLCC)