By Felisa Rogers
Trees, salmon, weed.
Invariably, the story of a state is the story of the industries that sustain its citizens. Fish and forests drew the original settlers to Oregon, but cannabis is at the heart of the state’s modern history. Since the 1960s, the green hills of Oregon have provided haven for outlaw growers who taught themselves to grow some of the world’s best weed. Growers in Oregon were never as overt as their neighbors to the south in Humboldt, and the state’s industry was more about making a living than it was about living large. That said, black-market money comprised a significant chunk of the state’s cash flow. Weed bankrolled the craft industries, artists, bands, breweries, organic farms, and niche businesses that would eventually bring Oregon a new kind of fame as a hippie/hipster haven.
The evolution of state cannabis legislation reflects a streak of anti-regulatory sentiment that runs strong among Oregonians. Oregon was the first U.S. state to decriminalize small quantities of cannabis (in 1973) and was an early adopter of medical legislation, with the passage of Ballot Measure 67 in 1998. But Oregonians were suspicious of further regulation. Voters vetoed two proposals for a medical retail system, as well as the first recreational cannabis measure.
Oregonian reluctance to go legal is easy enough to understand if you’ve ever lived in a state with a vibrant black-market economy. Medical and black-market growers were skeptical of the attendant fees and regulations, and we heard the usual mutterings about corporate hegemony and Phillip-Morris pre-rolls. But after years of debate, the majority of pro-cannabis Oregonians were unable to reconcile their ethics with continuing support of prohibition. In the words of Eugene architect Alyssa Baz: “Whether one sees marijuana as a recreational substance, a medical godsend, or an economic means, the potential damage that the plant can cause is insignificant compared to the ramifications that were piled on the public. Property seizure, jail, expensive fines, and child custody were real threats that loomed over the heads of millions.”
Medical grower Nicole Marie worried that legalization would put an end to the black-market economy that supported so many small businesses and creative endeavors but set her concerns aside on election day. “Leading up to the voting, I was 100 percent behind it,” she says.
On July of 2015, it became legal for adults (21 or older) to grow and consume recreational cannabis in the state of Oregon. Measure 91 outlined the usual restrictions regarding driving under the influence, smoking in public, seed-to-sale tracking, and kids, while establishing a system that permits relatively large grows (up to 40,000 square feet for outdoor) and allows retailers to sell seeds, immature plants, flower, extracts, and concentrates.
In reading the law, it’s clear that Oregon cannabis advocates learned a few things from observing the positive and negative aspects of the trailblazing recreational laws that first passed in Washington and Colorado. Oregon’s legislation is great for the casual consumer: Oregonians can grow four plants per household, possess up to eight ounces of weed, carry up to an ounce in public, possess ten seeds, and buy flower and concentrates from the state’s many recreational shops. Because there’s no cap on the limit of licenses issued to retailers, competition is steep and weed is cheap.
As with all cannabis legislation, there’s a few aspects of the law that don’t make much sense. For example, you’d have to be a pretty slack gardener to grow four plants and produce only eight ounces of bud. On the other hand, you’d have to be a pretty slick gardener to get ten seeds to yield four healthy female plants. That said, most Oregonian stoners seem happy with the arrangement. The situation is a bit more complicated for medical patients and caregivers, legal recreational growers, dispensary owners, black-market growers, and anyone who hasn’t read the fine print.
Living in a “legal” state can give a false sense of security. Decriminalization only applies if you’re operating within the limits set forth by the law, which can seem arbitrary. So while you can grow four plants with perfect impunity, it’s still a felony to grow more than eight plants without a license, a sentence that carries up to five years in prison and a $125,000 fine. And while you can go forth freely with one ounce of bud, double that number and you can still expect a misdemeanor, a $2,500 fine, and up to six months in jail.
On the commercial side, the regulations are predictably complicated, but not as draconian as certain cannabis laws (we’re looking at you, Washington). The Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC) issues an unlimited number of licenses, and licensee may hold multiple licenses, and multiple license types. The initial licensing fees are not particularly steep when compared to other states (we’re looking at you, Hawaii) and are arranged on a spectrum so that smaller businesses pay less. Additionally, the law mandates that the OLCC “Assist the viability of marijuana producers that are independently owned and operated and that are limited in size and revenue with respect to other marijuana producers, by minimizing barriers to entry into the regulated system and by expanding, to the extent practicable, transportation options that will support their access to the retail market.”
Despite this lip service to small businesses, the law does not require licensees to be Oregon residents, which has opened the doors to deep-pocketed investors from out of state. For example, Oregon’s largest cannabis business (based on number of employees) is Golden Leaf Holdings, a Toronto-based company that operates production and extraction facilities, as well as seven stores in Oregon, while simultaneously doing business in California, Nevada, and Canada.
Several of the law’s seemingly liberal provisions have had negative consequences for small growers. “The separations of licenses (processor, wholesaler, distributor) and the prohibitive costs of obtaining multiple licenses effectively did away with the home-based model,” says former medical grower Nicole Piper, who believes that the flooded market is due to the high plant limits for recreational grows. The combination of plummeting prices and rising fees have made it cost-prohibitive for her to farm. “The Oregon legislature has held session after session that, over and over again, has made it harder and harder for the growers,” she says. “They don’t seem like they have a long-term plan. It keeps changing, so that it’s incredibly difficult to follow the law.” She points out that constantly changing laws are particularly challenging for farmers, who can’t easily shift direction in the middle of the growing season.
Piper is not alone. Many Oregonians don’t jibe with the new regulatory structure and corporate flavors. Surviving in an outlaw industry takes a certain personality type and set of skills—which don’t necessarily mesh with bureaucracy. While some venerable players have chosen to opt out of the business completely, others continue to work in the shadows. According to a report filed by the Oregon State Police Drug Enforcement Section, Oregon is the country’s leading source of black market weed. And a federally-funded agency called the Oregon-Idaho High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA), claims that Oregon produces more than two million pounds of cannabis each year, or more than six times the consumption demands of Oregonians. (How they arrived at two million is something of a mystery.)
That said, many black market, grey market, and medical growers have adapted to the new industry—as legal recreational growers, as consultants, and, sometimes, as workers. Jill Delahanty grew cannabis for thirteen years, earning enough to support herself and her daughter while simultaneously channeling funds into her other business—an eco-friendly fashion line. But everything changed when recreational was legalized. She doesn’t have suitable property for a recreational grow and, with the market in its current state, she doesn’t think it’s worth it for a small grower. Today she works for a large cannabis farm in southern Oregon, where she makes $16.00 an hour. “I’m making much less money now. But I have health benefits and stability, so there’s a trade-off,” she says, adding that she no longer has the time or energy for her fashion line.
Which isn’t to imply that legalization is completely strangling Oregon’s small creative businesses. In fact, the end of prohibition opened doors for a new set of imaginative pioneers. The OLCC had approved more than 1,800 licenses for production, processing, and retail, but that doesn’t account for the full scope of the ever-diversifying cannabis economy: weed-themed weddings, “weed country” tourism packages, specialized marketing consultants, and security firms that specialize in cannabis. Many of these businesses are brand new, but existing businesses are also benefiting from diversifying with cannabis. For example, Aradia Willow, a Portland massage therapist, is excited to be able to offer therapeutic massages with cannabis-infused oil. “If I look at our web traffic, our second most searched term is CBD massage,” she says.
Although the law doesn’t work for everyone, the state is humming with opportunity and it’s undeniable that Oregonian cannabis enthusiasts have it better than most Americans. Despite being unable to survive as a medical grower under the current regulatory structure, Nicole Piper can see the bright side. “I’m proud of Oregon for legalizing,” she says, “and I’m proud of the activists and organizers who got it on the ballot.”