Struggling desert town turns to weed to help their economy

Global Business

Struggling desert town turns to weed to help their economy

There’s a revolution happening in a small city in the middle of nowhere.

Needles, California – which sits on the border with Arizona and Nevada – has been struggling.

CGTN’s Phil Lavelle reports.

This Republican city of 5,000 people has been hit hard by changing times. It used to be a major stop for freight trains heading east from Los Angeles and a rest stop for tourists traveling Route 66.

But as cutbacks affected the number of rail workers coming through, and tourists started driving past instead of pulling in, its population plummeted. Young people are heading out of town and not coming back.

So, it’s having to get creative.

The Mayor, Jeff Williams, is turning to pot. A former county sheriff – who locked people up when cannabis was illegal and who himself voted against legalization –has now helped approved more than 80 permits for growing facilities and four dispensaries in the last four years. And he’s planning more.

“It’s been like turning a battleship around,” Williams said. “It’s been an education process, talking to doctors and patients,” he said. He’s convinced fellow residents,and himself, that pot could be this city’s savior.

“We haven’t had a good industry here in a long time. If you’re a small town like we are and you’re not growing, you don’t have an industry, or some way to bring people in or keep the kids who are graduating from high school here in a job, you’re dying. And that’s what we were doing for a long time.”

Businesses are moving in and in a big way. Vertical Companies, for example, one of the largest marijuana producers in the U.S. has bought 29 acres of land here. It’s already built three production plants on the site. Construction is underway on more. It plans to have as many as 11 buildings here.

“You come to places where people want to be involved with you and want to build with you. And that’s what we have in the city of Needles. We have a city that has endorsed our industry and wants to grow with us,” COO Drew Milburn said.

There are only four dispensaries here, and they’re busy. At the Healing Center, which sits on the banks of the Colorado River, Cheryl Luell’s business is doing a roaring trade. The door barely stays closed for a few seconds, with a constant stream of customers pouring in. “We do people from all over the world”, she tells us. “Now that it’s recreational, yeah we’re busy.”

Pot went recreational in California more than a year ago, but Needles held out for several more months before switching from medicinal-only use. Luell’s client base is a different demographic from what you’d expect to see. “The majority of the people we get here are from 50-70 years old,” she said. “They’re ill, they’re in pain. They’re not teenagers.”

Mayor Williams said there was some mild opposition to the plan, but it didn’t last long when residents started to see the benefits: “It was pretty amazing actually,” Williams said. “Once they got educated, themselves, and they saw the tax dollars come in. Maybe a handful of people have spoken against it.”

And the city is now expected to grow—with city council projections showing an increase of around 2,000 residents over the next few years, and the average household income going up by $15,000.

Williams likens it to Las Vegas boom a few decades ago. “It’s our time,” he said.