Gateway to drugs? A California border city's future in a legal pot world

PALM SPRINGS, Calif. — Halfway through the six-hour slog from Phoenix to Los Angeles, weary travelers find themselves crossing the California border in the small agricultural town of Blythe, a city that’s known by many for cruising past on Interstate 10.

But this town, spotted with blighted buildings and sprawling cotton farms, is suddenly more than a gateway to the Golden State. Now that adult-use, recreational marijuana is legal in California — and still illegal in Arizona — Blythe could be the gateway to green.

On Tuesday, as Arizonans rejected recreational marijuana, Californians decided to light up, legally.

For the time being, you'll have to drive another two hours into the state to get your fix. Two years ago, Blythe banned medical marijuana businesses, putting the closest dispensaries 120 miles west in Palm Springs, where medicinal and now recreational pot has been embraced by city leaders and community activists.

Business experts and locals largely think Blythe is too remote and saturated with underground drugs from Mexican cartels for legal dispensaries to take hold.

But the city manager and council are about to review their policy. If they change their minds, Blythe is in a unique position to capture the green fever of border neighbors and westward travelers dreaming of California weed.

Jack Trahan, an Arizona resident traveling through Blythe in his RV, said there’d be plenty of business for Blythe dispensaries from seasonal residents of Quartzite, a snowbird destination about 20 miles inside the Arizona border.

“There’s a lot of old people who would want to smoke pot, relive their college days,” he said, laughing.

In Palm Springs, Coachella and Desert Hot Springs, legal pot is viewed as much as a solution to sagging tax revenues as it is a vehicle for lifestyle enhancement and medical relief.

Even so, after Blythe fell into a $3.3 million budget deficit in 2008, residents and city leaders declined the temptation of revenue from sales of medical marijuana. In 2014, 55% of local voters chose not to support a measure allowing the cannabis industry within the city. Proponents of the ban at the time claimed bringing in marijuana businesses would increase crime in the city of about 20,000 people. They suspected pot clients would fake ailments to obtain medical marijuana purchasing cards.

In the Coachella Valley, Palm Springs, Desert Hot Springs and Coachella have estimated that medical marijuana businesses will generate more than $35 million in additional tax revenue every year. Statewide, recreational legalization is predicted to produce $1 billion in tax dollars annually, once licensing begins in January 2018.

Now that California has legalized pot, Blythe City Manager Peter Cosentini said he will revisit the issue with the City Council. There are no plans to overturn the medical marijuana ban, but he wants to ask if the city should extend the ban to adult-use cannabis.

“(Marijuana) was quite an issue in 2014,” Cosentini said, “but it’s a policy issue, so we’ll take it to the council.”

Members of the City Council did not immediately return a request for comment.

There's time to sort out Blythe's approach. For now, California's law restricts recreational pot to individuals: You can grow and smoke at home, but not outside. Pot shops are more than a year away. While Blythe may maintain its moratorium on marijuana, some think a little green could entice more from travelers than the cost of a tank of gas or a motel room.

“A couple pot shops would be nice,” said Bob Brown, an RVer who lives on the road with his wife, Helen. The pair have traveled just about everywhere and have fond memories of visiting recreational dispensaries in Oregon and Washington.

“You go in (a dispensary) and it’s crazy,” Helen Brown said. “There’s so many varieties.”

One Blythe resident, who asked to be identified only by his first name, Thomas, to protect his job, said he thought it would be ridiculous for the city not to overturn the ban and take advantage of its border geography.

“There’s a lot of potheads here,” he said, “so that could be a lot of business over here, coming over here, getting their pot, getting the munchies, hitting up the restaurants. That’s great.”

But business experts think the idea might look better on paper than in reality.

“That sounds like a horrible marijuana business plan to me,” said Aaron Herzberg, partner and general counsel for CalCann Holdings, a cannabis holdings and real estate company based in Santa Ana.

Herzberg said counting on travelers coming through the city to buy weed is a “really stupid idea,” especially when you take into account that bringing any kind of marijuana back into Arizona is a federal felony.

The area might be good for one or two dispensaries, he said, but it's unlikely to support an entire pot industry. The agricultural community might even be too remote for successful cultivation businesses unless there’s some kind of tax deal or licensing incentive put forth by the city.

“For the most part, growers aren’t interested in growing in remote areas, because you don't want to be that far from your base,” Herzberg said. “Just because something is marijuana doesn’t mean that it will be successful unless (city) licenses will get involved.”

The novelty of legalized marijuana might not even be enough of a draw for travelers having already come through Arizona, where medical marijuana is legal.

“I have a pretty good feeling that it’s not that hard to get marijuana in Arizona,” Herzberg said wryly.

USA Today


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