Marijuana Sales Top $100 Million in Idaho Border Town of Ontario, Oregon

ONTARIO, Oregon — According to data from the Oregon Liquor Control Commission, legal marijuana shops in the tiny Oregon/Idaho border town of Ontario have topped over $103 million in sales in just over sixteen months of operation.

According to the records for Malheur County, sales of marijuana have been at about $8 million a month or greater for the past seven months, as over a half-dozen marijuana shops have opened since July 2019.

Malheur County still maintains a ban on marijuana businesses. That’s the status quo for most of Eastern Oregon, set in 2015 when state legislators allowed counties that rejected the 2014 marijuana legalization initiative to automatically ban marijuana licensees such as dispensaries and grow sites.

When it comes to Boise, we send our marijuana tax money to Ontario and they send their marijuana back to us.

Idaho Citizens Coalition spokesperson Russ Belville

Ontario is the only city in Malheur County that allows marijuana sales, having voted by initiative to overturn its ban in 2018 by a 56.8 percent vote. With the local 3 percent marijuana tax in effect, this town of about 17,000 people has raised about $3.1 million in revenue from legal marijuana.

On a per-capita basis, that makes Malheur County, population roughly 30,000, by far the state leader in sales. In November, Ontario’s pot shops sold $23 worth of marijuana per person in November 2020.

Of course, they’re not just selling marijuana to Malheur County residents.

Ontario is just across the Snake River border with Idaho, and just a one-hour-or-less drive away from the 750,000 Idahoans living in the Boise Metro Area. The parking lots of Ontario’s marijuana shops, just off the two westbound Interstate 84 freeway exits, are teeming with cars bearing Idaho license plates.

Idaho has a 6 percent state sales tax. Assuming the vast majority of Ontario’s sales come from Idaho customers, that’s an estimated $480,000 per month Idaho could make in sales taxes alone, not to mention whatever additional cannabis excise taxes the state would implement.

“When it comes to Boise, we send our marijuana tax money to Ontario and they send their marijuana back to us,” explains Russ Belville, spokesperson for the Idaho Citizens Coalition, the group behind the last attempt to place medical marijuana on the Idaho ballot. “We’re not stopping anyone who wants to smoke marijuana from doing so and we’re wasting a lot of money trying to stop them.”

Idaho Press: Idahoans’ support for medical marijuana has grown, but it might not be reflected in the Legislature

Ten years ago, when Bill Esbensen first began working with activists to push for some form of legal marijuana in Idaho, someone threatened to beat him up for it.

He was at a Willie Nelson concert in Boise, trying to collect signatures to get an initiative to legalize marijuana on the ballot. As he remembered it, the man who wanted to attack him for collecting signatures was probably older than 80.

“That was the attitude of people back then,” he said.

Esbensen has worked on multiple attempts to legalize medical marijuana in the decade since. Public opinion on the topic in Idaho has shifted during that time, he said on Aug. 4, citing a poll from the firm FM3 Research that shows 72% of Idahoans are in favor of legalizing marijuana for medical purposes. The poll took place in April 2019 and included 400 Idahoans.