OLCC rolls out plans for recreational marijuana

Steven Marks

North Coast communities have been scrambling to deal with the fallout, both real and imagined, of Measure 91, which was passed in November 2014 and legalizes the use and possession of recreational marijuana for Oregon adults.

Meanwhile, it has been “all marijuana, all the time,” for the Oregon Liquor Control Commission, according Steven Marks, the agency’s executive director, at a lunch in Astoria Tuesday.

With a looming deadline of Jan. 4 to begin accepting applications for licenses to set up marijuana operations, the agency has much to accomplish in a short amount of time.

The agency’s job is pretty simple: Oregon statute gives them a mandate to know what’s going into a product, to track the product along the supply chain and to make the product available to Oregon residents in a system that the agency licenses and regulates.

When it comes to marijuana, Marks knows the numbers:

Of the 2.9 million Oregonians over the age of 21, roughly 20 percent have reported using marijuana within the last year. Of those users, about 30 percent — medical patients and “super users” — accounts for 70 percent of marijuana consumption in the state. That leaves about 70 percent of users — probably recreational users, Marks said — responsible for the remaining 30 percent of consumption.

Unlike Colorado and Washington — the first two states to legalize recreational pot — “we have a highly evolved marijuana grow community,” in part, because the plant is easier to grow outdoors in Oregon, Marks said. “In Oregon, we’re transferring an industry in from an illegal to a legal system.”

Sounds simple enough. But “simple” doesn’t mean “easy.”

On the policy side, the agency needs to finalize the rules for licensing marijuana businesses and tracking product from grower to market. These rules must be in place before the agency can set up the online licensing application and fee system.

The agency recently announced 30 new full-time positions. A handful of these positions are policy-based while the bulk are responsible for licensing and inspections. The agency hopes to have each spot filled by early October and the personnel trained on the new rules and system-to-be-developed before November, Marks said.

Then there’s the “seed to sale” system for keeping tabs on the marijuana itself.

“Seed to sale” will require the barcoding of viable seedlings. The agency can then track a batch’s location, including who grew it and where. This is, in fact, a standard held to all legal consumables for the sake of consumer protection, one that allows for product recalls and the ability to trace the product back to its source.

“Seed to sale” also helps ensure that a licensee maintains compliance with the U.S. Department of Justice’s “Cole Memorandum,” which spells out the federal government’s marijuana-related prohibitions. These include not selling weed to minors and keeping the drug off the black market.

“We want to see people who can play by the rules, and who play by the rules even when markets are tougher,” Marks said.

He added that “seed to sale” serves as a substitute for the three-tiered system the OLCC applies to alcohol but not to marijuana.

Someone involved in the distribution of alcohol must be licensed as a producer or a wholesaler or a retailer, but never more than one at a time. But someone involved in distributing marijuana can be licensed in any number of capacities at once: grower, processor, wholesaler, retailer, laboratory tester, researcher, etc. This complicates the agency’s ability to follow product, a deficiency for which the barcoding of plants may compensate.

Though the agency has been moving at full speed in recent months, “there hasn’t been resistance to doing this,” Ranee Niedermeyer, OLCC government affairs and communications director, said. “People know it’s hard, but they’re in there, and they’re doing it.”

Once hired and trained, the new OLCC workforce won’t have a great deal to confront on the North Coast — at least not right away.

Astoria has three officially licensed medical marijuana shops, and when Oregon Senate Bill 460 kicks in Oct. 1, the shops will be allowed to sell recreational marijuana.

Across the bay in Warrenton, however, the City Commission voted not to allow medical marijuana dispensaries to sell recreational marijuana. Warrenton doesn’t have any medical marijuana dispensaries operating.

Neither does Gearhart, and there are none in the works, according to Gearhart City Manager Chad Sweet. However, in October 2014, the city voted to implement a 5 percent tax on gross sales of marijuana and marijuana-infused products to cardholders under the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program, and a 10 percent tax on gross sales to non-cardholders.

Seaside has two medical marijuana dispensaries, but City Manager Mark Winstanley doesn’t know if the City Council will allow them to sell recreational marijuana come October.

Cannon Beach’s business license application doesn’t allow for businesses that violate federal law, so, at the moment, medical and recreational marijuana facilities are off the table since marijuana remains federally illegal.

Once the OLCC starts accepting applications in January, the agency will likely prioritize the licensing of growers so that they can to get their product to retail sooner rather than later, Marks said. The agency will then start licensing retail around fall 2016, he said.

One pressing question hasn’t gone unmentioned within the agency: Will the Oregon Liquor Control Commission change its name?

The agency hasn’t taken a position, Marks said. However, some people have floated the suggestion “Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Control” commission.

It would be cost-efficient at any rate: the commission wouldn’t necessarily have to change the acronym on its letterhead.


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