NEEDLES — Jeff Williams, the incoming mayor of this small desert city near the Arizona border, arrested a lot of people for selling marijuana in his days as a county sheriff. He voted against legalizing the stuff in a 2016 statewide referendum.
But Williams also knows the city he has called home since he was in second grade has seen better days. The railroad jobs have mostly gone away. And people don’t stop off on the old Route 66 as they used to.
So Williams, a slender 54-year-old, has become the unlikely leader of Needles’ unlikely effort to turn itself into a new kind of industry town dedicated to the growing business of cannabis.
“If a small community like this isn’t growing, it’s dying — and that’s what we were doing,” Williams said. “We needed to do something.”
The City Council in this solidly Republican community of 5,000 people has approved 81 permits for cannabis businesses since 2015. Four stores are selling marijuana to the public — about 100 times the number of dispensaries per person over the entire state.
Almost every block in Needles has a rundown building like the old Relax Inn, which is being converted into a cannabis growing facility. Or a new building going up for manufacturing oils and edibles. If all the projects pan out, local officials hope they will generate more jobs — an estimated 2,100 — than Needles has altogether 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,” Rick Daniels, the city manager, said in an interview at Needle’s single-story City Hall.
If Needles rings a bell, there is a reason. The historic Route 66, the road traveled west by many of Southern California’s 20th-century settlers, cuts right through town. Needles was the Joad family’s first California stop in “The Grapes of Wrath,” by John Steinbeck.
Needles also was the first place train crews swapped out on freight trains headed east out of Los Angeles. That created hundreds of jobs.
But like many other small towns on the way to Los Angeles, Needles used to be a lot more important. The railroad cut the size of its train crews, and the elegant depot building in Needles is mostly empty. Needles lost its last grocery store in 2014. More than a quarter of the city’s residents live below the poverty line. Bit by bit, the jobs and the people were leaving.
In Williams’ first go-round as mayor from 2006 to 2010 (he was also a member of the City Council for four years), he tried to attract the solar industry. When that failed, he was drawn to the opportunity in marijuana by a friend who wanted to open a dispensary. California residents had voted to allow medical marijuana years earlier, in 1996.
Williams spoke with doctors about the potential benefits and slowly got over some of the antipathy toward the drug that his parents and his years as a police officer had instilled.
“It was like turning a battleship. It was a long process,” he said in a recent interview.
Williams, who said he still had not smoked marijuana himself, worked with the city manager and a lawyer to put together a ballot measure in 2012 that imposed a 10 percent tax on cannabis businesses. It passed with 81 percent of the vote.