Last year was a big year for cannabis.
In December, the Oregon recreational cannabis industry topped $1 billion in sales for the first time, ending the year at $1.1 billion—up from $795 million the year before. This sudden spike in sales should come as no surprise. Thousands throughout the state suddenly found themselves quarantined at home with plenty of time to kill. (Pro tip: cannabis is an excellent tool for killing time.)
But while the pandemic may have been the source of the industry’s sudden boom, it was also the source of a great many unforeseen obstacles.
“There were a lot of challenges on the labor side with all the problems we faced with COVID,” explains Jeff Johnson, cofounder of one of the state’s most successful dispensary chains, Nectar. “Just absolute chaos ... every day, basically.”
Cannabis shops had to scramble to adapt to the new normal, adopting safety-minded measures like curbside pickup and delivery. Certain complications arose—the rule that a service can deliver only within the jurisdiction where it’s licensed, for example—but overall, business around the newly deemed “essential” service trucked along smoothly.
“The privilege that we gave the cannabis industry to allow curbside pickup or delivery was not abused,” says Mark Pettinger, the Recreational Marijuana Program spokes-person for the Oregon Liquor Control Commission, which also oversees cannabis businesses. “It could have been exploited if people had chosen to do so, but the industry responded, embraced, and followed all the rules and regulations around it. It’s been successful.”
Bigger changes are on the horizon, including the Oregon Cannabis Equity Act (or House Bill 3112, as of February 1). Though talks of reinvesting more tax dollars into social equity programs had been in the works for some time, the summer of protests for racial justice in Portland gave it momentum.
“We saw the racial injustice that we couldn’t turn away from,” explains Jeannette Ward Horton of the Oregon Cannabis Equity Act and NuLeaf Project. “People went to the streets for a very long time, and everyone was so passionate. ... We thought that we had the will of the people to get something done for Black and Brown communities in Oregon.”
The act, backed by new Gresham state representative Ricki Ruiz and others, focuses on reinvestment in BIPOC communities—providing business opportunities, housing, health care, and expungement of certain cannabis-related crimes—and the creation of a new business license type with lower fees and prioritized processing to support startups. With BIPOC communities still reeling from the disproportionately devastating effects of COVID-19, Ward Horton is hopeful she’ll see it passed this year.
“There’s this opportunity to get it right,” says Ward Horton. “To build a better industry—not just another industry. I think it will be a model for other industries to follow if we get it right.”