State of Weed: Medical Marijuana to bring jobs to small towns

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VANDALIA - Julie Picton grew up in California but said she now can't imagine living anywhere except rural Missouri. 

"The country grows on you," the 50-year Vandalia resident said. 

For the past five years, Picton has worked at Firestone and Appliance and Furniture, but the business has been an integral part of Vandalia for much longer. 

Don and Donna Hoover have owned the store since 1977. When Don died in 2018, Picton said many in Vandalia worried Donna would close up shop. Instead, she took on ownership herself. 

Picton said the store is part of the fabric of the town. 

"It means everything," she said. "Actually, the community needs it. The customers are like family, and the community is tight-knit."

The community also has stagnant job growth. According to data from the American Community Survey, 1,118 people in Vandalia were employed in 2015. Three years later, the same survey showed 1,116 employed people. 

"Vandalia needs growth," Picton said. "What we need to keep a community thriving is jobs."

Brian Carr has worked at Firestone and Appliance and Furniture for 42 years. He said he's seen a lot of businesses leave town over time.

"Some leave and some come back in, but more have left than started back up," he said. "That's the way it is with a lot of towns."

But now the small town of 4,000 is bracing for a new industry to come in: medical marijuana. 

Two businesses - 1913 Holdings and Standard Wellness, LLC - have licenses to both cultivate medical marijuana and manufacture products infused with the drug. 

This concentration is uncommon. Columbia, a city more than 29 times larger than Vandalia, has no licenses for cultivation or infused product manufacturing. Jefferson City has just one product manufacturing license. 

However, there's a reason why Vandalia is seeing a medical marijuana boom. When the state established rules for awarding licenses, one factor the scoring process took into consideration was the potential for an applicant to have a "positive economic impact" in the community. To do this, the Department of Health and Senior Services awarded extra points to applications from "economically distressed areas," which it categorized based on the employment rate in each zip code.

The employment rate in Missouri is 93.7%. In Vandalia, it's 88.3%. That difference meant all applications for businesses in Vandalia got a point boost. 

Lyndall Fraker is the state's director for medical marijuana regulation. He said he thinks communities that will see new medical marijuana businesses are eager for the potential economic benefit.

"Every report we've got so far, those communities that have been awarded licenses seem to be very excited to have the opportunity for more jobs and a boost in their economy," he said. 

But Picton said there is some hesitation in Vandalia.

"People in the community, they're anxious, of course, when they're hearing that a new business is coming to town," she said. 

But Picton said she doesn't feel the same way. 

"Personally, I think it would be great to have those businesses come if it means jobs because that's what we need," she said. "If the community grows and can thrive, that's nothing but a plus."

Picton said she hasn't always been as supportive of the medical marijuana industry. 

"I've been on both sides of the fence," she said. 

She said it was seeing the opioid epidemic ravage rural towns that made her change her mind. 

"There are people out here with real pain," she said. "I believe if it can help them, then yeah, I kind of have jumped on the other side of the fence and go 'why not?' If it helps.”

Fraker said he's seen this shift in perspective all across the state. He is from Marshfield, which he said he likes to "claim as the buckle of the Bible Belt." He pointed out the 2018 ballot measure to legalize medical marijuana passed there with 53% of the vote. 

"We've seen a cultural shift already and we're going to see even more," he said. 

Neither Vandalia company has said when they expect to open their doors, but Picton said she hopes the new job opportunities will mean young people who grew up in town won't have to leave just to make a living. 

A full list of businesses with medical marijuana licenses can be found on the Department of Health and Senior Services' website