Ex-Sheriff And Current Mayor Of A Struggling Small California City Make A Bet On Legal Cannabis

Needles, California may have once been a popular stopping place for people traveling down Route 66 and once operated an important railroad, but those days are gone. The once-numerous railroad jobs are mostly gone and the city of 5,000 hasn't had a grocery store within its borders since 2014—plus a quarter of the residents live below the poverty line.

In an attempt to see the place he has called home for most of his life rejuvenated, incoming Needles mayor Jeff Williams says he's looking to cannabis to bolster the city's economy.

"If a small community like this isn't growing, it's dying—and that's what we were doing," Williams told The New York Times. "We needed to do something."

Marijuana has already begun to take a firm hold on Needles. There are currently four dispensaries open and over 80 percent of applications to open a cannabis business in the city have been passed since 2015. A new cannabis growing facility to be located in Needles' old Relax Inn is estimated to create 2,100 new jobs.

That's more than the total amount the city has right now.

"You would be hard-pressed to find someone in town who their brother, uncle, sister, aunt, cousin or themselves isn't involved in the industry," explained Rick Daniels, Needles' city manager.

Williams, who at one time was the city Sheriff, said it took him a long time to change his opinions on cannabis. He likened the process to "turning a battleship." Needles on a whole has a tendency to be a more conservative, too, but they know a good deal when they see one.

"This is a very politically conservative town—but it's got a streak of libertarianism," Daniels said.

Not everything has been smooth sailing though. The city's first dispensaries were raided by federal agents. No charges were laid, but the seized products were never returned. And in light of a bribery scandal that happened in neighboring Adelanto, Needles officials are now taking a highly cautious approach to interacting with businesses.

"This industry is so critical to this community's future—we just cannot afford to screw it up," Daniels said.

Cannabis has generated 350 jobs so far in Needles, and property prices have also begun to rise in the city. Still, city officials are cautiously optimistic about the prospects of total economic revival. As the marijuana industry grows in California, Needles' facility may be rendered unprofitable by much larger ones that will inevitably be coming.

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