The Border-Town Effect: Dispensaries Boom on State Line

dispensaries in town. 

It was 5 a.m. when he heard somebody banging on his window from the darkness outside.

Dan Cummings, the community development director in Ontario, Ore., a city of roughly 11,000 people in the eastern part of the state, had spent some early mornings at his office in the days leading up to that clatter.

Earlier that week, in November 2018, Ontario voters overturned the city’s ban on cannabis sales, with 56.8% of 3,383 balloters showing their support for a local measure that would impose a 3% tax on adult-use retail.

Four years earlier, when Oregonians approved Measure 91 to cannabis cultivation and adult-use statewide during the 2014 general election, residents in Malheur County, where Ontario is located, were on the other side, voting 68.3% against that measure. Under the state law, counties and cities that opposed the measure by at least 60% had the option to outlaw cannabis legalization in their municipalities. The Ontario City Council did just that when its members voted to prohibit cannabis retail in 2015.

But when a citizen-led petition gathered enough signatures to get a new pro-cannabis retail measure added to the Ontario ballot in 2018, Cummings said he started writing community development codes ahead of time in case voters lifted the ban. A couple statutes he wanted to establish included a licensing and permit program for dispensaries as well as 1,000-foot buffer zones between fellow retailers and between a retailer and schools, city parks and residential areas. In addition, potential dispensary owners had to show proof they owned property that met those buffer-zone parameters before receiving city permits.

“We had things in place prior to that so we didn’t get stuck like a lot of cities with your pants down,” Cummings said. “I came in at 4:30 in the morning, which I had been doing a lot to try and get all the codes and everything written up and prepared, and about 5 o’clock I heard somebody bang on the window out front. I looked out there and there was somebody sitting on my bench out there. And, at first, I thought, ‘What are they doing?’ And then it hit me like a rock, ‘Oh, I know what they’re doing. They’re lining up.’ And sure enough, that’s exactly what they were doing.”

While the 2018 measure wouldn’t take effect until Jan. 1, 2019, experienced dispensary owners and aspiring dispensary owners alike started camping outside Cummings’ office the same week of the general election in a mad rush to stake a claim in one of the most promising locations in Oregon. Nestled on the state line with Idaho, Ontario is positioned to take advantage of the most populated area in the Gem State, with Boise residents no farther than 50 miles from town.

Without medical or adult-use legalization in

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