On a warm late-summer afternoon, Don Stevens steps out of the Cannabis Corner in North Bonneville, in southernmost Washington state. With a scruffy beard, wire-frame glasses, and receding gray hair that curls down to his collar, he looks like a hippie high school teacher, the kind who'd frequent a marijuana shop. It helps that he's wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with heavenly buds, a local cannabis producer.
But Stevens is more than a pot aficionado; he's also the city's highest elected official. Just check out his license plate: mjmayor.
That Stevens is known as the Marijuana Mayor isn't the only funny thing happening in this town of 1,005. Inside the Cannabis Corner's otherwise unremarkable bright-green facility is a one-of-a-kind experiment. The shop, which opened its doors in 2015, is run by the city, making it the only government-operated cannabis store in the country. By September 2016, it had generated $2.2 million in revenue, and once the Cannabis Corner covers its start-up costs, proceeds will go to updating the local playground, bankrolling law enforcement, and other municipal expenditures. Not bad for a town that was nearly bankrupt in 2013.
Outside sleepy North Bonneville, this endeavor could have far-reaching implications for the five states — California, Nevada, Arizona, Massachusetts, and Maine — voting on legalizing recreational marijuana this election. Currently every recreational marijuana market in the country is based around privately owned stores. Because the Cannabis Corner is a government entity, not only is it exempt from federal taxes, but all the proceeds go back to the town, keeping cannabis — and its profits — in the hands of the people. "In states that legalize, there's no reason other towns can't do the same thing," says Pat Oglesby, a North Carolina marijuana-policy expert and former chief tax counsel for the U.S. Senate Finance Committee.
"It's the greatest idea nobody is talking about," says 59-year-old Stevens as he walks through the dispensary, passing cases packed with marijuana baggies and shelves displaying multicolor bongs and hand-carved walking sticks that double as weed pipes.
Stevens was elected mayor in 2009, though the longtime marijuana enthusiast hadn't planned to get into politics. In 2005, the former IT director moved with his wife from Hood River, Oregon, to North Bonneville for a sales job at a local fruit-bar company and for the mountain bike trails and snowboard runs in the Columbia River Gorge. But while North Bonneville boasts a striking mountain backdrop — "This is where God stopped creating," locals like to say — it also resembles a town dropped in the middle of nowhere. Set far back from the highway, it has none of the retailers, breweries, or other revenue-generating businesses that have helped revitalize nearby towns like Stevenson and Cascade Locks. For years North Bonneville officials sold off city land to stay solvent, but after the 2008 housing crash, there was little of it left. North Bonneville teetered on the edge of bankruptcy.
An unlikely solution came after marijuana was legalized in Washington in 2012. Council member Charles Pace, an economist who'd helped tribal governments navigate federal regulations, proposed the idea: Why not operate a marijuana store, with profits going to the city's coffers? If it became a problem — say, fueling increased use among youths or contributing to auto accidents — the city could pull the plug. "The thought was, 'If it's going to be here, it's going to be on our terms,' " says city administrator Steve Hasson. So the council voted to create the North Bonneville Public Development Authority and provided a $15,000 loan to get the store off the ground. Loans cobbled together by local citizens provided another $250,000.
On March 7, 2015, the Cannabis Corner opened for business, and within four months it was attracting 100 or so customers a day. But not everyone was impressed, including local law enforcement. "When you spend 30 years fighting marijuana, to just roll over and take marijuana money and say things are great, I can't do that," says county sheriff Dave Brown. Critics are also waiting to see a real payoff. "If they could show something, like four shiny police cars, this model would be enticing," says local pastor Tom Flanagan, who remains opposed to the shop. "But in terms of financial benefits, it has not been significant."
Stevens and other supporters of the venture urge patience. Once the store pays off its loans in the next couple of years, it projects annual profits of around $75,000. While far from a jackpot, it's still more than the town, which has an annual operating budget of $1.3 million, spends on law enforcement each year. Executive director Robyn Legun also points out that the store does not appear to be encouraging use among youths or attracting undesirables, and that it supports local growers, buying marijuana primarily from farms within a 30-mile radius. "It's become a farm-to-table, buy-local thing," says Stevens. What's more, the Cannabis Corner is now North Bonneville's second-largest employer, with 11 workers earning about $15 an hour (nearly $6 more than the state's minimum wage), along with benefiting from health insurance. "What other small-town mom-and-pop offers that?" asks Legun.
Maybe that's why the vibe among locals is generally positive. For a town without a single coffee shop, the Cannabis Corner has become a watercooler spot. Mothers and sons shop there together, and "budtenders" ask locals if so-and-so is still feeling under the weather and how the kids are faring at school.
"Compared with other Washington stores, they have the best deals and quantity as well as quality," says Terre Bluse, who recently moved from North Bonneville to a nearby town and stops by the shop a couple of times a week. "Bonneville was broke a year ago," she says. "Our town should follow the model."
For now no other municipality is considering the North Bonneville approach. Possibly, says Oglesby, that's because those pushing for legalization — diehard libertarians and liberals fed up with the war on drugs — aren't likely to trust government-run cannabis. Elected officials also fear incurring the wrath of the federal government, which still considers marijuana to be illegal.
So far, the feds have left North Bonneville alone. Which meant I had the rare opportunity to consume government-supplied marijuana with an elected official.
After visiting the Cannabis Corner, Stevens and I take a pre-rolled joint of "Bluniverse 3" and pass it back and forth as we sit by the Columbia River, watching a paddle steamer of tourists chug by.
"I've never smoked pot with a journalist before," Stevens says.
Soon he could be doing so a lot. The Marijuana Mayor aims to spread the word about what his city has pulled off, by speaking at cannabis conferences, reaching out to pro-legalization operations in California, maybe taking the news all the way to the top. After all, there's a reason that, as part of the dispensary's inaugural first purchase, he bought a gram of "Nobama Diesel."
"I've still got the [now empty] bag," he says. "Someday I might send it to the president."
The Cannabis Corner by the Numbers
Average number of customers daily: 100
Total grams of marijuana sold between March 7, 2015, and September 1, 2016: 134K
Average customer age: 49
Customer breakdown: 35% tourism related, 65% local