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Tiny Sumpter, Oregon, Becomes Unwilling Marijuana Mecca


Historically, the tiny town of Sumpter has attracted tourists for its rich mining history, museum, mountain trails and Old West flair.

Now, tourists have a new reason to visit the community of about 200 people: It’s one of only two places where people can buy recreational marijuana within a 200-mile radius in eastern Oregon.

But unlike the small town of Huntington, which embraced recreational stores for their economic potential, Sumpter became a cannabis haven accidentally, and, many in town would say, unwillingly.

Recreational marijuana has been legal in Oregon for nearly three years. But it’s not easy to buy in eastern Oregon, where most counties and cities have banned recreational marijuana stores. But Sumpter didn’t opt out. Now, the tiny retirement community with one main street and gravel roads has become an unwilling haven for recreational marijuana users who travel from as far as Boise, Idaho, for the product.

“I was pretty much staunchly against them coming in,” said Sumpter Mayor Carey Clarke.

City leaders had a chance to opt out of having recreational stores within their municipal until the end of 2015, per state rules. But around that time, councilors were wrapped up in local drama and recall attempts.

“I think we have the dispensaries just because we were in turmoil,” said Clarke. “And it just got swept under the rug.”

Sumpter simply forgot to pass a ban. Most of the councilors at the time would have voted to ban recreational marijuana stores.

Sensing a business opportunity, Jenny Long and her husband, Justin, began looking into opening a dispensary in Sumpter. With so few places to buy recreational marijuana in eastern Oregon, Sumpter could be a cannabis mecca.

The Sumpter Nugget is one of two marijuana dispensaries now unexpectedly located in the tiny eastern Oregon town. 

The Sumpter Nugget is one of two marijuana dispensaries now unexpectedly located in the tiny eastern Oregon town. 

Amanda Peacher /OPB

They bought an old restaurant that had been boarded up for more than a decade. Conveniently the old restaurant name was a good fit for a dispensary: The Sumpter Nugget.

The Longs even kept the old restaurant logo: the silhouette of a miner bent over a gold pan. “We just modified the image slightly to add a pot leaf to the gold pan,” Jenny Long said.

Another dispensary also made plans to set up shop in Sumpter.

City leaders were stunned when they realized marijuana businesses were moving in.

“We woke up one morning and said, ‘Oops, my goodness,’” said Robert Armbruster, who, despite serving on the council himself, said the city’s leadership is unprofessional and ineffective. “I would characterize this council as incompetent, disorganized — not progressive.”

“We’ve tried to scramble to get this stopped,” said Clarke.

Councilors passed an ordinance that would ban marijuana businesses within 1,000 feet of parks. That would have, in effect, banned recreational marijuana stores, since the whole town is within 1,000 feet of the Sumpter Dredge, a state park. But the council didn’t follow Oregon Liquor Control Commission rules for passing such ordinances, so the measure didn’t stick.

In another desperate move, one resident set out to collect petition signatures to put a dispensary ban to Sumpter voters during this year’s May election but was again thwarted by OLCC rules, which only allow ballot measure bans during statewide elections. The next opportunity for Sumpter to try and pass a ban will be November 2018.

Sumpter Mayor Carey Clarke opposes recreational dispensaries in town. 

Sumpter Mayor Carey Clarke opposes recreational dispensaries in town. 

Amanda Peacher /OPB

Clarke believes that most full-time residents are against the dispensaries, but when the city sent out a survey to property owners, the informal poll showed that 75 residents were in favor of allowing marijuana businesses in Sumpter while 68 were against.

Figuring they should at least get some tax revenue out of the shops if they had to live with them, city leaders put a 3 percent local tax on marijuana to voters in November 2016, which passed. The cannabis stores estimate that they’ll contribute at least $30,000 in taxes annually to city coffers. That’s a significant chunk of change for a tiny town with an annual budget of about $500,000.

The Sumpter Nugget has tourism brochures inside the dispensary, and Long said she thinks the stores are an overall boon the economy.

“Business has picked up dramatically since they opened up,” said Angela Borello, owner of a tiny grocery and gift shop called Angie’s Gold Post. “All day long, I get people in here for pop, candy bars. All day. Business helps businesses.”   

Sumpter Nugget customer Travis Radle travels to Sumpter once or twice a week from Keating, about an hour’s drive away. He was pleased when the stores opened. “It’s easier and it’s nicer quality marijuana other than getting it off the street,” he said.

Like many who cite concerns about legalization, Clarke is worried about increased crime and traffic safety. He’s anxious about stoned drivers on the curvy road out of town. But most of all, he’s concerned that Sumpter will become known as a marijuana mecca, instead of for its quaintness and history.

“We have the mining museum and the gold dredge,” Clarke said. “I would like Sumpter to be known for those things and not marijuana dispensaries.”

Long said many residents were surprised but enthusiastic about the stores. Locals either ignore them, she said, or they’ve become customers. She pointed out that they bought a business that had been sitting vacant on Main Street for years. “A lot of people were very excited and happy to see something happen in here,” said Long. “A few were shocked and immediately demanded the city do something about us and prevent us from opening.”

But there’s not much they city could do then, nor in the future. The two existing recreational stores will be grandfathered in, even if Sumpter voters eventually pass a ban. And now, the mayor is worried that Sumpter will change. Retiree Melissa Findley agrees.

“It seems like the biggest thing that’s going to draw tourists is gonna be the pot shops,” Findley said.

And it does seem like those marijuana shops are already drawing people to Sumpter.

Portia Mittens, co-owner of Sumpter's second dispensary The Coughie Pot, shows off some of her products. 

Portia Mittens, co-owner of Sumpter’s second dispensary The Coughie Pot, shows off some of her products. 

Amanda Peacher/OPB

“Business is doing good. It’s picking up,” said Portia Mittens, co-owner of Sumpter’s second dispensary, the Coughie Pot. “As people are learning about the medicinal properties, I think people are getting a little less scared of it.”

 That was certainly true for Melissa Findley. She visited the Sumpter Nugget to see for herself what it was like. “They have neat stuff in there. They have tinctures!” she said, a note of wonder in her voice.

She’s never tried marijuana, and she was concerned that legalization could ease access to the drug for minors. But she’s found herself opening up to it, now that the stores are in town. Even if Sumpter may not have wanted recreational marijuana shops in its backyard, the unexpected arrival is giving some residents a new perspective on marijuana.

“I was teasing my grandson,” Findley said, laughing. “You know, your nana visited a pot shop. … Be careful—next time you come up to Sumpter you may see me on my back porch vaping some weed.”

This story came to OPB via our Public Insight Network. To share your experience and story ideas, join the network at OPB.org/publicinsight.

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