Marketplace: We harvest big bucks from vice

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Forget alternative energy or high-tech health care. Clark County’s developing a niche with no help from the economic development experts: vice. Just look at the evidence. Booze, gambling and drugs are all growing sectors in our economy, bringing in millions of dollars and likely employing hundreds of local people.

The booze is the least controversial. As reporter Sue Vorenberg writes in today’s Life section, Vancouver’s got a burgeoning beer scene, with a handful of established microbrew pubs and tasting rooms already here and more on the way. Clark County also has a small but growing wine scene, with Three Brothers Winery, East Fork Cellars and Gouger Cellars Winery all earning awards in recent years. Beyond locally made drinks, Clark County liquor sales are up 35 percent to $38.2 million over the past decade, when adjusted for inflation, according to the state Liquor Control Board.

Gambling is important to tiny La Center, where card rooms raked in $31.5 million in revenue in 2009, according to the most recent figures from the Washington Gambling Commission. The planned Cowlitz casino promises to make gambling even more central to the county’s economy. If the tribe overcomes continued objections to its plans, it says it will build a $150 million hotel and gambling complex on 152 acres near La Center.

Then there’s drugs. Heroin, cocaine, meth, addictive painkillers and other controlled substances surely have their fans, but it’s marijuana — with its quasi-legal status for people with medical need — that seems to be the biggest economic engine in the world of illegal substances.

About 6 percent of Southwest Washington residents over age 12 said they’d smoked pot in the previous month, when surveyed in 2004 by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services — that’s more than 20,000 people in Clark County.

“That’s probably low,” said Brandon Brock, CEO of Vancouver-based Mary Jane’s House of Glass, which has five Clark County locations and three stores outside the county.

Brock declined to provide details about his company’s finances, except to say that business dipped some in 2009 but has been strong since then. He estimates that his industry has annual revenues of about $10 billion, and confirmed that Mary Jane’s sales are in the millions.

It’s tough to calculate just how big Clark County’s vice economy might be, because private businesses don’t have to disclose financial information and pot dealers tend to keep a low profile to stay out of trouble. But we can guess.

In Colorado Springs, Colo., a city with about the population of Clark County that taxes marijuana sales, medical buyers spent nearly $22 million in 2010. A consultant estimates that the Cowlitz Casino would bring in $77 million per year. Add in public data about liquor sales, and we can estimate that pot, booze and gambling could bring in $137.2 million to Clark County each year — and those are just a few of the vices that local folks like to indulge in.

Love it or hate it, that’s a big — and often overlooked — slice of the county’s economic pie.

Courtney Sherwood is The Columbian’s business and features editor. Reach her at 360-735-4561 or courtney.sherwood@columbian.com.