Moving the Industry Forward through Advocacy and Engagement
Oregon Retailers of Cannabis Association (ORCA)
At the local, state and federal levels, cannabusinesses stand to benefit greatly from advocacy groups that give them a voice at the decision-making table, advocating for and advancing their members’ best interests. Key to this advocacy is engagement, and that’s where the Oregon Retailers of Cannabis Association (ORCA) thrives.
ORCA is a strong and ever-growing member-supported trade association that works tirelessly on behalf of its membership. With over 400 members, ORCA is an advocacy organization that engages its members to take control of the future of their industry, setting the regulatory standards and serving as a model for other states embarking on legalization.
The mission of ORCA is “to create a thriving, safe, and respected legal cannabis industry,” and it has done a great job achieving those ends. The organization was established post-ballot measure 91, which legalized recreational marijuana in 2014, and has had countless milestone achievements since then.
The association was founded by Executive Director Casey Houlihan who served as field director for that campaign and saw an opportunity to move the industry forward in the wake of the legislation’s passing, building on the deep relationships he had built. As Membership Director Jesse Bontecu recalled, “He and some other retailers came together and were concerned about how the legislature would actually implement and enforce this statute, so they formed the organization with the hope and intention of ensuring that, to whatever degree possible, the legislature stayed true to the intent of the words of the initial legalization ballot measure 91.”
ORCA spearheaded work on sales legislation, taxation and other early legislative efforts. As one of the early adopters of legalization, Oregon was a trailblazer in terms of what a state cannabis industry could look like, and it was important to have representation at the legislative level. The same is true today.
For Bontecu, “It’s so important to be engaged politically and have a voice inside the room fighting for our own future as an industry. Doing that – not just talking about it but doing it well – and really fighting for important legislation and then creating a strong and fun culture that is professional and dedicated to providing our members with valuable information and the opportunity to connect directly with legislators and policy makers and share their stories and educate them about the industry.”
Early on, ORCA had a positive impact through its education, advocacy and engagement efforts, and as such, the organization continued to grow. Further to its advocacy work at the legislative level, ORCA offers several member services and resources including newsletters, meetings and support regarding banking, advertising, communications, and industry analytics.
According to Bontecu, ORCA “creates an environment where people can come and look for support, network, socialize, have a good time and really build community because we are a burgeoning industry and it’s really important to have that networking where people can make connections, share ideas and feel safe.”
While there are certainly advantages derived from the social aspect of the association, the real advantage of membership can be seen in the work that ORCA does and the countless victories the organization has earned. Before highlighting ORCA’s successes, Bontecu acknowledged, “No one can ever take credit for everything that is done in the legislature, but there are things we work very hard on,” including efforts to protect medical patients, making them exempt from sales tax, to deflect sales tax increases, and to protect workers from losing their jobs due to using cannabis in a legal state.
A big issue ORCA has taken on is Tax Section 280E which prevents cannabusinesses from business tax exemptions that companies in other industries get to enjoy at the state level. The organization was one of many that fought for an exemption at the state level, a change to legislation that would no longer prevent banking institutions from working with cannabusinesses for fear of penalties for doing so.
Since 2015, ORCA, alongside the Craft Cannabis Alliance, has been instrumental in the advancement and passing of export legislation at the state level in Oregon, making it the first state to establish like-legislation. This is certainly a strategic play to position the state at the forefront of the industry as a prime cannabis-growing region once the industry is federally recognized. “That obviously doesn’t change anything federally, but it drives the conversation forward,” said Bontecu, who noted that federal approval in this case is very broad. “It could be a Cole Memo, it could be legislative action, it could be descheduling,” he explained.
Through its efforts, ORCA seeks to insulate its members from unnecessary regulations that dictate business policies that are not in line with profitability. An example cited by Bontecu was the issue of fixing transfers and manifests and the complicated nature of those business transactions. ORCA is working with Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC) to break down the stringent requirements related to transfers and manifests, as they do nothing to improve quality or safety and require time and resources that are costly.
Bontecu explained, “When our law was passed, there wasn’t too much experience with the legal structure, what was good and what was bad. There are some very onerous, pointless regulations that really dramatically increase the costs of doing business and don’t increase quality or improve safety.”
He continued, “Each person that is making a delivery, whether it is a wholesale delivery from a farm, processor or wholesaler – it’s very complicated and each delivery has to be independently manifested and tracked, and that sometimes costs ten percent of the entire cost of goods.”
This is also the case with packaging. Oregon’s packaging requirements are very onerous and create significant amounts of plastic waste, and for a state that is dedicated to environmental efforts and sustainability, these measures appear counterintuitive.
Further to its work advocating for its members, ORCA also works toward the achievement of equity. Social consumption is a matter of equity, as Oregon’s strict indoor clean air policy prohibits smoking or vaping of cannabis in shared and public spaces. For Bontecu, the issue is that medical patients have no safe place to consume in their homes, especially if they are renting or in public housing.
“If you can’t consume in your house and you can’t consume in public, where can you consume?” he asked. “We’re very dedicated to ensuring that when we legalize cannabis that we legalize it for everybody, and not just homeowners. We’re very dedicated to trying to ensure that everyone has a safe place to consume, and that means we need to address issues with the indoor clean air act.”
This exemption would not only afford people the opportunity to have a safe space to consume, it would allow processors and producers in the state to conduct minimal sales, primarily for the purposes of samples for those who are participating in farm or processing tours. Private events could become licensed, and retailers could offer consumption spaces or cafés for safe public consumption.
ORCA also advocates for worker protections, as there are employers in Oregon who will fire employees for consumption outside of work hours. Bontecu assured that these changes would not prevent people from being fired for intoxication on the job, as impairment will always be a dismissible offence; it just enables individuals who wish to consume while off-duty to do so without fear of repercussion.
For Bontecu, it once again comes down to “legaliz[ing] cannabis for everyone, not just those who aren’t drug tested at work.” This is something ORCA will “fight for that until we get it – to protect people, to enable them to consume on their own free time according to their own free will.” This is also true of the organization’s efforts to ensure Senate Bills 420 and 975 fulfill their intended purpose regarding expungement and the reduction of previous convictions.
For issues like these and more, Bontecu could not emphasize enough the importance of engagement. This is especially true as cannabis is an emerging industry that has a unique opportunity and responsibility to decide the direction it wishes to take. Bontecu noted that this fall, the OLCC is doing its largest rule rewriting since 2015 and there is a great opportunity for its members to take advantage of the advisory sessions and meetings to collaborate and consult with legislators to ensure their interests are being represented at the regulatory level.
“Rules are really where the statutes get turned into their actionable items, and this is a big project this fall and we want the entire industry engaged in that,” said Bontecu. “One of our goals is to help people understand how to do that, facilitate that and be that voice in the room.”
He added, “If we’re not in there, somebody else is and that means somebody else is making decisions about our future. We should be the ones directing what happens to our future and creating the future that makes sense for us as an industry,” leading the way to demonstrate how Oregon could be a model for what a safe and thriving cannabis industry can be.