It’s Time that Oregon Treat Cannabis Equal to Alcohol

It’s been over six years since Oregon voters passed Measure 91, making the Beaver State the third to pass cannabis legalization, following Colorado and Washington by just two years. Since then, the overall cannabis industry has boomed becoming an essential business sector creating much-needed jobs and revenue during the COVID-ravaged economy. Those not familiar with the industry might think that cannabis is already treated equal to alcohol when record-breaking sales and revenue numbers make headline after headline. However, the bigger issue is federal, the cannabis businesses, especially small, locally-owned retailers like Kind Leaf, are unnecessarily stymied by local and state regulations as well. With federal banking and tax laws already hurting mom-and-pops, states should fully embrace the essential cannabis industry. As Green Light Law Group opined, the state’s cannabis and alcohol regulatory, the Oregon Liquor Control Commission, doesn’t treat the two business sectors equally:

In a recently contested case concerning the Oregon Liquor Control Commission (“OLCC”) packaging and labeling rules, several OLCC employees submitted opinion testimony as to how they believed a reasonable cannabis consumer would interact with certain cannabis packaging, claimed by the OLCC to violate OLCC regulations. When asked about the basis for these beliefs, the OLCC witnesses admitted that they did not have any experience with any of the cannabis products they regulate. 

That the OLCC so-called expert witnesses blithely admitted a lack of real-world experience with the very products they regulate should be a source of consternation for all licensees in the industry. But given the major differences in the way the agency treats alcohol compared to the way it treats cannabis, it is probably not surprising. And let’s be clear: we are not criticizing agency staff, who are just doing their jobs and trying to stay out of trouble – this is an institutional issue.

Anyone who has visited OLCC’s headquarters cannot help but notice the various liquors proudly on display just outside the lobby. The OLCC also regularly promotes contests giving contestants the right to purchase rare liquors or even offering liquor as a prize. In contrast, to our knowledge, no marijuana has ever been displayed at OLCC headquarters, and at the hearing an OLCC witness confirmed that OLCC staff aren’t even allowed to have any items that contain cannabis at their headquarters. While OLCC marijuana regulations impose substantial restrictions on marijuana advertising, prohibiting cartoon characters or any depictions of marijuana consumption, alcoholic beverage companies are apparently free to put comic strips on their packaging depicting anthropomorphic cartoon characters getting passed-out drunk (by the way, no shade to the brewery that put out this product, it was amazing beer). These are just a few examples of the OLCC’s differing approaches to alcohol and cannabis.

Personally, I think that the OLCC had a tough job thrown at them initially and that they have done a pretty good job overall navigating the different constituencies and political forces that they have to deal with. I’ll defend or praise the agency when they deserve it and I’ll criticize when necessary. I think that the OLCC has made some decisions based upon fear of political backlash, both locally and from the federal government. It’s time to put those fears aside.

We no longer need to kowtow to a Jeff Sessions-led Justice Department or be fearful that the Oregon Legislature or voters are gonna repeal cannabis legalization. Legal cannabis is a billion dollar industry that’s here to stay and it will only become a bigger part of Oregon’s economy and culture. We no longer have to worry about the “oversupply problem” and limit cultivator licenses. Nor do we have to worry about the stigma regarding cannabis. We are not only in the majority, we are in the supermajority, it’s high time that cannabis be treated equally with alcohol, pun intended. Maybe the name change to the Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commission will be the jolt the agency needs.

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