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Oregon lags other states in cannabis equity programs

Emily Harris

OG Article: here.

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The recent audit of the Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commission recommends ending barriers that keep the state from spending cannabis tax funds to help people who have been disproportionately hurt by marijuana law enforcement.

Why it matters: Even though it was among the first to legalize cannabis, Oregon is now among just a few such states that don't have cannabis-related "social equity programs."

  • The audit found that much of the disproportionate harm is race-based, but that "debate over the inclusion of race-based language is slowing the deployment of social equity programs" in Oregon.

What they're saying: "If we don't act soon, Oregon will miss the opportunity to right the wrongs of the War on Drugs," Rep. Janelle Bynum, a supporter of several failed bills for such programs, told Axios in a text.

How it works: Many cannabis-related equity programs focus on helping people harmed by drug enforcement in the past break into the cannabis business now.

  • Washington just passed a law to add more shops, grows and processing operations, with all licenses going to owners who meet equity criteria, writes Axios Seattle's Melissa Santos.

  • Other states reduce license fees or offer entrepreneurs grants.

Details: Equity criteria can include past marijuana arrests or being in a neighborhood or racial group that was overly affected in the past.

Flashback: In 2020 and again in 2021, bills that would have laid groundwork for a statewide social equity program did not advance in the Legislature.

State of play: This year, advocates are trying to direct cannabis tax revenue toward a nascent program intended to help long-disadvantaged communities build wealth, even though Business Oregon, the agency running it, doesn't work with the cannabis industry.

Yes but: The bill is getting pushback because it would use money that currently goes to drug rehabilitation.

Separately, the OLCC plans to develop a limited social equity program when it starts reissuing expired or suspended cannabis licenses. Public discussions on criteria kick off this summer.

By the numbers: There's no definitive picture of diversity in the industry here.

  • The OLCC surveyed a small fraction of active license-holders three years ago and found 84% identified as white, 12-15% as Hispanic, Native American or Asian and 4% as Black.

Zoom in: At the city level, Portland uses cannabis taxes for grants to small entrepreneurs of color, including cannabis entrepreneurs. It also discounts fees for small-scale cannabis businesses — particularly those that include women, minorities, or people with past marijuana-related criminal convictions.

  • Portland also uses cannabis money for a range of community programs designed to support equity.

The intrigue: This is the audit that led Secretary of State Shemia Fagan to resign. She had taken a side gig consulting for a cannabis firm while her office did the audit.

Of note: Because of the ethical questions around Fagan's outside contracting while the audit was going on, the state Department of Justice is reviewing its independence and conclusions.


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