Stirring the Political Pot

As the marijuana industry grows, so does its poltical power

Illustration by Chelsea Plouffe

The pot lobby.

No, it’s not the waiting area where you sit around before boarding a flight on planet pot. Wacky weed, the devil’s lettuce, your good friend and mine, Mary Jane, is neither a joke nor reefer madness.

With the legalization of both medicinal and recreational weed in Oregon, pot is serious business, and any serious business needs advocates in government. 

Farmers have lobbyists in Salem; so do grocery stores. If there is a business or a cause, there’s someone bringing it to the attention of elected officials.

Here in Eugene, the tech industry regularly has members who appear before the City Council to address issues ranging from downtown safety to bringing Uber back. So it stands to reason a growing industry needs to have advocates on issues from 1,000 feet for buffer zones between cannabis retailers to locations where weed can legally be consumed.

Casey Houlihan is executive director of the Oregon Retailers of Cannabis Association (ORCA), an organization that advocates for responsible retail cannabis policy. Houlihan says the cannabis lobby has come together surprisingly quickly since recreational retail weed was legalized in this state in 2014. 

One of the basic challenges he faces, he says, is explaining and normalizing marijuana, as well as training those who advocate for weed to “look and seem professional” and move away from the notorious image of tie-dyed stoners.

Houlihan is no stranger to the industry; he worked on the Measure 91 campaign that led Oregon’s legal recreational pot movement. After that, it was a logical move to begin ORCA, which he says has accrued 300 members since it kicked off in 2015. 

When it comes to the Oregon State Legislature, Houlihan says efforts will always, on some level, revolve around taxation, as the industry seeks to keep taxes low and develop a stronger foothold in the legal market. 

Public consumption is another issue, he says. Under Oregon’s Clean Indoor Air Act, places like Eugene and Portland can’t move forward with any type of smoking lounge.

Shawn Coleman of Terrapin Care Station says he considers this to be an issue as well. Coleman is Terrapin’s director of government affairs, working on issues in Eugene and Colorado. He says that in Colorado there is a bill in the Legislature that is compliant with that state’s indoor air act and would allow for indoor pot consumption via vapor. 

“Consumers themselves are moving toward vapor as opposed to smoking,” he says. But Oregon’s law doesn’t allow for indoor partaking of weed via vapor at a business. 

Coleman points out that right now, with no lawful place to consume outside of the home, “people do it everywhere and anywhere,” and the weed they smoke comes from an unknown (possibly illegal) source. 

Oregon does allow for smoking patios, but Coleman asks, “What about the neighbors?”

“If Oregon went vapor it would be known locations and known sources” and through Oregon’s regulatory system, he says, as opposed to sourcing through black markets.

Coleman says that he’s confident that in the next Oregon Legislature session there will be a bill addressing the vapor issue.

Locally, Coleman and Houlihan say Eugene’s discussion of 1,000-foot buffers between pot shops has been a focus. Terrapin Care Station is located downtown, and Coleman says it’s a “balancing act to make sure there’s room for the city and industry to grow without crowding out other businesses.”

It’s a land-use and diverse-business issue, he says, and there are certain things, like pot-free snacks for example, that marijuana retailers can’t provide and other businesses can.

And there are only so many dollars to go around, Houlihan says of the proliferation of pot shops, adding that Eugene is an exception in that it didn’t put in buffers when other cities did.

Federally, banking and taxes are an issue that Houlihan says ORCA is working on. He says the group has helped retail weed businesses access banking via Maps (Marion and Polk counties) Credit Union, while some businesses are banking under a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

Next month, Houlihan says, a delegation will go to Washington, D.C., for the national Cannabis Industry Lobby Days and look to “move the needle” on a few things. Houlihan says 280e tax reform is a major issue for the legal cannabis world. 

Basically, he says, 280e was added in the 1980s when drug runners were writing off items like helicopters and speedboats on their tax returns. As a result, he says, “fast forward 35 years,” and if your legal business involves Schedule 1 drugs, you can’t deduct business expenses on your tax returns.

Ironically, Houlihan points out, businesses can deduct the actual cost of goods — the drugs they are selling. 

He says there has been some “traction” on 280e, including GOP political advocate Grover Norquist calling for its repeal. “It’s a tax issue and a small business issue,” Houlihan says, not a marijuana issue. 

He says he expects about 400 people to show up for the national lobby days. ■

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