Smokin' to Survive

Washington Just Opened the Nation's First Government-Owned Marijuana Dispensary

This time last year, North Bonneville, Wash., couldn't pay its bills. The tiny city of 1,010 people, which sits across the Columbia River from Cascade Locks, has never been especially well-off, but between cuts in state funding and the Gorge's struggling economy, things were grim.

Hasson and the city's mayor, Don Stevens, came up with a plan. Legal marijuana is bringing a boom to Washington. How could the city get a piece? Why not open the nation's first government-owned marijuana dispensary. So North Bonneville used some of its dwindling cash reserves to form a public development authority that could apply for one of Skamania County's two state-issued licenses. They spent a little more to erect a no-frills dispensary on the edge of town.

On March 7, the city-owned Cannabis Corner (484 Evergreen Drive, North Bonneville, Wash., 509-427-4393) finally opened. The occasion was marked by a "grand opening" banner hung between two concrete pylons off the Evergreen Highway and visits from NPR, Al Jazeera and Bloomberg News.

Inside the shop—it's a blue metal shack in a gravel parking lot with a green velvet rope at the entrance—things were going well.

"I went in to talk to the manager, Robin, and she says, 'We've already banked $5,000.' Wow!" Hasson says. "Just psychologically, it's so uplifting."

To hear Hasson tell it, the city faces big challenges. The sewers "are going to hell," and there's no dog catcher other than the mayor.

"Yesterday, we had a pit bull running loose, and the sheriff's department called and wanted to know what we were going to do about it. If it's a dangerous animal, well, we look to the sheriff's department to take care of it," Hasson says. "Otherwise, we call the mayor. For a while we had four dogs here at City Hall. We were feeding them and watering them."

North Bonneville does have a few things going for it. The Pacific Crest Trail is nearby, there's a stunning view from the top of an 848-foot monolith known as Beacon Rock, and there's a resort with mineral pools where you can float for $15 to $25. 

"It's a little bit bohemian here anyway, and then you add the pot store, and it makes it even more bohemian," Hasson says. "We want people to come and play disc golf, go to the hot springs and just enjoy the ambience of the community."

The pot shop will help, especially since it offers $15 gram bags from three Washington producers, below what most recreation shops charge.

"We're government, so we don't have to pay income tax, which helps defray the cost of the product," Hasson says.

Even though it's competing with private enterprise, it's hard to see anyone getting upset. Especially considering the reaction of other rural Washington communities, like Yakima, which banned all marijuana sales then stuck out its greasy little paw for a share of the state's proceeds. Rather than goldbricking, as so many red-hued and green-starved rural communities have done in recent years, North Bonneville is embracing creative solutions to its problems.

"I see these other cities going to the state Legislature with hat in hand, asking for money," Hasson says. "If we're going to help ourselves, we'd better do for ourselves. It's better that you have a survival strategy."

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