The Clown Car

The OLCC is in way over its head with legal cannabis

Illustration by Chelsea Lovejoy

I wonder, in the history of Oregon state government, has there ever been a bigger mismatch than the Oregon Liquor Control Commission overseeing the newly legalized cannabis industry? Has there ever been another state agency less prepared to carry out its role?

There was a lot of news last year about one Oregon cannabis company, La Mota, and its owners, Rosa Cazares and Aaron Mitchell. They donated money to Democrats in Oregon, including Gov.Tina Kotek and then Labor Commissioner (now Congresswoman) Val Hoyle. They hired Secretary of State Shemia Fagan as a consultant for $10,000 per month. Fagan lost her job, and her political career, as a result.

While they were courting political favors in Salem with cash, La Mota had over $7 million in state and federal tax liens, lawsuits by employees for unpaid wages and from vendors for unpaid bills. Apparently, their licenses to sell pot in Oregon were never in jeopardy regardless of the failure to pay taxes or employees. OLCC either didn’t know, or just didn’t care, or was powerless to do anything. I seem to recall one of the arguments for legalizing pot was that it would generate tax revenue and jobs. But that only happens if the pot industry actually pays taxes and wages. 

In 2018, an OLCC inspector stumbled onto 50 pounds of unlabeled, untracked La Mota cannabis in a warehouse in White City, 40 miles from the California border. Even OLCC could deduce the pot was destined to be “diverted and shipped to an illicit market” by La Mota. La Mota got a ticket from OLCC and fought it for two years. They eventually paid a $16,000 fine. La Mota’s licenses to sell pot were never in jeopardy, and its taxes still went largely unpaid.

It’s obvious that the OLCC is not capable of managing the cannabis industry. It’s a multi-billion dollar industry, mostly cash. It’s totally out of OLCC’s league. What a huge mistake it was to put pot under the guidance of the whiskey-drinking good ‘ol boys at the OLCC. They should go back to doing what they do best —  diverting expensive whiskey to friends and colleagues of the director — and get out of the pot business altogether.

In the early 1980s, Oregon actor Dick Curtis starred in a wonderful Blitz-Weinhard beer commercial as an Oregon state trooper intercepting beer from California. The commercial featured a Schludwiller Beer truck and the tagline “Where you boys going with all that beer?” The hapless drivers would respond “There is too much beer in California, so we are taking it to Oregon.” The final shot is of the truck heading back to California. 

I offer the following with apologies to Mr. Curtis, who passed away in 2023:

The big 18-wheeler, loaded with pot, is rolling down the Oregon highway towards the California border. With little to fear from the OLCC, the truck is decorated with brightly painted cannabis leaves. Why hide it when no one seems to care? From the rear, a siren, then multi-colored flashing lights and rotating gumball lights. An “AH-OO GAH” horn blares. One of the drivers asks the other, “What’s up”? The other replies “It’s just the clowns from OLCC, no need to worry.”

As they park, a clown car pulls up, right out of the circus, with OLCC emblazoned on the hood. A dozen clowns pour out of the little car. Empty bottles of Pappy Van Winkle bourbon fall out on the ground. The clowns do handstands, back flips, somersaults, card tricks and sight gags as they approach the truck. “Where you boys going with all that pot?” They sing out, laughing and honking horns.

The driver, smiling, says “We’re going to California. Thanks to the lack of oversight by the OLCC, there’s too much pot in Oregon, so we’re going to sell it down there.” The clowns gather in a huddle. After a long minute or two they look up at the driver and with big smiley faces they all sing out “It’s OK, not a problem, have a nice day.” 

The final shot is the semi, loaded with cannabis, crossing into California.

Bob Warren retired in 2012 as the regional business development officer for Business Oregon for Lane, Lincoln, Linn and Benton counties. Prior to that, he was a senior policy advisor to Gov. Barbara Roberts and district aide and natural resource advisor for Rep. Peter DeFazio. .

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