For John Leeds, the hour-and-a-half commute to and from his job as assistant manager at Treasure Valley Cannabis Company is grueling but logistically unavoidable.
Like nearly half the other employees, Mr. Leeds, 39, lives in Idaho and travels along Interstate 84, past vast alfalfa and onion fields, to a marijuana business just over the border in Oregon, where cannabis is legal.
“They really are two different worlds,” Mr Leeds said. “Lots of whips on the subject just driving the car up and down the highway.”
Every day, hundreds of customers and workers like Mr. Leeds make the pilgrimage from Idaho to Ontario, Oregon, a small town nestled along the Snake River that is home to 11 dispensaries — roughly one per 1,000 residents. They can compare the aromas of different types of marijuana and collect staff knowledge about THC levels in edibles.
The hemp boom is helping to drive a booming local economy — and the tax revenue that’s paid for new police positions, emergency response vehicles and park and trail improvements.
Missing the event is increasingly frustrating for some politicians and longtime residents of Idaho, where the population and cost of living have risen in recent years.
Because the sale or possession of marijuana remains illegal at the federal level, many states—and, for that matter, neighboring states—have taken drastically different approaches to whether and how to decriminalize, regulate, and tax cannabis. As of 2012, 23 states have legalized it for recreational use, and more than three dozen allow marijuana for medical purposes.
Eleven states, most of them conservative, have passed extremely restrictive laws regarding medical marijuana. Aside from cannabis-derived drugs approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for limited medical use, Idaho has not legalized any cannabis sales — a ban that has helped its more progressive neighbors.
“Our cannabis market caters almost exclusively to Idahoans,” said Ontario Mayor Debbie Folden. “It was an economic boom like this city had never seen.
A patchwork of laws that vary by state and often by county have created a similar commuter-fueled boom in other parts of the country, said Mason Tvert, a partner at VS Strategies, a national policy and public affairs firm in Denver. .
Texans travel to Colorado to stock up on their favorite varieties or edibles, and Indiana residents make the trek to Michigan, he said. “The demand will be met either by the illegal market or by the legal market in another state,” Mr Tvert said.
That proposal and the broader economic equation are not lost on Idaho officials.
Last year, the state approached two million residents, an increase largely attributed to people moving from California in search of an overall cheaper cost of living. Only Florida grew faster.
Property tax has increased by 20 percent since 2018, according to a message from the Idaho Fiscal Policy Center, a nonpartisan group. The state budget — currently running a surplus — is expected to come under pressure, the group noted, citing legislation that cuts income taxes by about $500 million over three years, even as population growth places new demands on health care, education and transport.
Some longtime residents of the state are tired of marijuana dollars going elsewhere as prices rise from new residents.
Legalizing and taxing the sale of cannabis could bring in revenue and help offset any budget concerns, said Joe Evans, lead organizer for Kind Idaho, a medical marijuana legalization group.
“That money shouldn’t be leaving the state of Idaho,” said Mr. Evans, who noted the entrepreneurial spirit of the region, home to Joe Albertson, who founded the local Albertsons grocery chain and laid the foundation for a multibillion-dollar national business.
But for Mr. Evans, who served in the military in Iraq and Afghanistan and knows fellow veterans who use cannabis for pain relief, legalization is also about more than money. He said it was long overdue for his state to legalize a substance that can offer relief for some health conditions.
Patients who use marijuana, especially elderly or chronically ill Idahoans, shouldn’t have to drive an hour or more to Oregon, he said.
“This is about patient advocacy,” said Mr. Evans, who hopes the state will consider legalizing medical cannabis next year.
It wouldn’t be the first attempt.
Initiatives to legalize medical cannabis failed to qualify for the ballot in 2012, 2014 and 2016. In 2020, proponents of the ballot measure suspended signature-gathering efforts due to the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the next year, a bipartisan group of state lawmakers introduced a medical marijuana bill that failed to make it out of committee.
As those efforts failed, Idaho customers increasingly made the trip to Oregon, where voters legalized cannabis for medical use in 1998 and for recreational use in 2014.
Few areas in the state benefited as much as Ontario’s home of Malheur County.
The city, which voted in 2018 to legalize local recreational marijuana sales, is the only part of the county with dispensaries. Still, Malheur County racked up roughly $104 million in total cannabis sales last year, outpacing all 35 other counties in the state except Multnomah, which includes Portland.
In 2020, the first full year that Ontario allowed the sale of cannabis, the city received $1.8 million in resulting tax revenue. The next year, sales increased by 65 percent.
The area is a conservative pocket in a progressive state — a movement called “Great Idaho” wants the region to secede from Oregon and become part of Idaho — and Mayor Folden, a native of Ontario, calls herself a conservative Republican.
That didn’t stop the city from becoming a cannabis capital. According to the mayor of the municipality, tax revenues are a lifeline. But the city is stockpiling, Ms. Folden said, because it expects Idaho to move toward some form of legalization within five years.
“We know it’s not going to last forever, so we’re being cautious,” Ms Folden said. “We know that the economic winds, as they say, can change.
In the fall and poll for The Idaho Statesman, a Boise newspaper, found that 68 percent of residents supported the legalization of medical marijuana. When it comes to recreational use, 48 percent supported legalization, while 41 percent opposed.
Gov. Brad Little of Idaho, who is in his second term, strongly opposes the legalization of marijuana. In an emailed statement, Mr. Little, a Republican, said “marijuana legalization triggers numerous unintended consequences.”
But some local politicians in Idaho have begun to consider the economics of the matter.
Boise Councilman Patrick Bageant said the need for alternative forms of tax revenue is becoming more pressing.
“Marijuana legalization can help bring in different forms of cash,” Mr. Bageant said. “Just look around the country – we as a state should be more forward-looking.”
Adam Watkins, a software engineer and a constituent of Mr Bageant, has lived in the city’s West End for the past ten years. The value of his home has doubled since 2018, when he paid $3,200 in property taxes; now it pays almost $4,200.
“You look around 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 fiscal reasons.
“It is a drug with proven health effects and we leave this problem to other states to solve,” he added. “We blindly turn around like it’s not a problem, even though it clearly is.
On a recent afternoon back in Ontario, red, white and blue license plates reading “Scenic Idaho” lined the parking lot at Treasure Valley Cannabis. (Federal law prohibits interstate transportation of marijuana.)
Mr Leeds manages a staff of 45 four days a week. He used to work five days but agreed with owner Jeremy Archie to work four to save on the commute.
That day, Mr. Leeds and Mr. Archie walked across the floor around a pen, different types of cannabis, and sweatshirts, celebrating the company and the state.
They greeted customers and shared stories of patients battling health issues such as cancer who use their products for pain relief. On one wall hung a poster announcing a 25 percent discount for customers who pool a car with at least three people.
A small gesture of thanks, Mr. Archie said, for their customers in Idaho.
“The Idaho market has made it a very successful business,” he said.