[UPDATE – Jan 25]
Day Two of the Cannabis Collaborative Conference has provided me with the time to produce a transcript of the remarks by Steve Marks, Director of the Oregon Liquor Control Commision.
With further review, I find that I’m not just shocked that he seems more concerned with the stopping kids from getting marijuana than getting alcohol, but that he seems to admit that his commission is redirecting resources from liquor enforcement for that very purpose.
RUSS BELVILLE: We’re here with Steven Marks. He’s the Director of the Oregon Liquor Control Commission, which handles the regulation and oversight of the cannabis industry here in the State of Oregon. Welcome to our show.
STEVEN MARKS: Thank you.
RB: During your presentation, it was brought up, the fact that we just recently did Minor Decoy Operations, and in the decoy operations, the six conducted, the marijuana retailers were coming up with an 81 percent compliance rate – about one out of five kids who tried could get in.
RB: I did some number crunching and found that for 2017 and 2016, the alcohol compliance rate was 79 percent, and in the past two years, OLCC has done almost a little more than half as many checks on alcohol as they did the prior two years.
So, my question is, has the commission’s need to regulate marijuana detracted from its mission to stop minors from getting alcohol as well? Is regulating marijuana and alcohol together causing a problem for regulating alcohol?
SM: Well, it did initially, because we used liquor inspectors to help us get licensing done early on as fast as we did it, so we did detract from the resources out of enforcement and licensing for liquor to work on getting this industry up and running.
This is a stunning admission. Our industry began in October 2015 when early sales to all adults transpired at existing medical marijuana dispensaries. That corresponds to what I found in the data for Minor Decoy Operations (MDOs) on alcohol retailers. In 2016 and 2017 combined, there were only 54 percent as many MDOs conducted as the years 2014 and 2015 combined, and the rate of compliance dropped from 81 and 80 percent to the 79 percent compliance of the past two years.
Maybe the next states looking to legalize marijuana will learn from Oregon and form a separate commission for the regulation of cannabis, like California has done.
SM: You know, and people do make the comparison to minor decoy statistics to alcohol. Well, I have 500 [marijuana] retailers. All you’ve got to do is look at the box on the ID. We have information on what it is, the simplest of things to comply with in our system. And, you know, with experience we expect to see a rate much more like the high rate for Colorado and Washington. They’re closer in the high-90s.
But it is a rate, right? What difference does it make how many retailers of the substance there are? Any one retail clerk at a location that sells either alcohol or marijuana isn’t affected by the total number of retail clerks statewide. The facts are that about one-in-five times a kid tries to buy alcohol or marijuana, he or she is not carded.
It’s the people selling the substance that’s the problem, not the substance they are selling.
SM: But, you know, people were — and I was disappointed, because I thought our industry was ahead of this game. I thought we had done enough and rolled out enough to get there. Portland Metropolitan Area is particularly bad and we’ve got to get a correction to this.
So, you’re going to see some enforcement. You’re going to see us taking tough actions on this. It’s important right now. But we do expect it to come into compliance.
RB: Well, with the characterization of it being “bad,” though, when we’re outperforming alcohol, is alcohol equally as bad? And what is the commission doing do fix that?
SM: It’s a specious comparison in my mind. I know you make it, Russ, and a lot of people have, and it’s legitimate to do that.
But, in alcohol, there’s sales and service and there’s thousands and thousands of locations. This, we’re talking about, you know, five hundred that are like just looking for one simple thing on the ID. So, we should have a higher compliance rate here.
Think about that. The top regulator for alcohol and marijuana says it is “specious” to compare the enforcement of roughly 500 marijuana outlets to the enforcement of roughly “thousands and thousands” of alcohol outlets.
Why? The retailers of both substances are “just looking for one simple thing on the ID,” and alcohol retailers are statistically worse at it. How many of them there are doesn’t make checking that ID more complex, does it?
Is the idea that there is a far greater number of alcohol outlets, so they’re more willing to take the risk of selling to kids, knowing the chances of getting caught by OLCC are scant? If that’s the case, doesn’t that argue for putting more resources into compliance checks for alcohol, not fewer?
SM: And, you know, I have — while we’ve created this industry in the imagery of the alcohol system, I think the marijuana industry ought to aspire to be better than that system in a lot of ways.
If you look at interstate regulation of alcohol, it is terrible. I’m not sure that’s what the industry for marijuana wants. As marijuana legalization moves across the country, I think you’ve got to have a more standardized system than that. And I think it should be standardized more than alcohol is.
I wish I could have followed up by asking him what he thought of the interstate regulation of marijuana. Just north of us, adults can’t cultivate their own cannabis or buy bulk cannabis. Vermont just established a law that allows no cannabis commerce. Nevada has a criminal misdemeanor with a $600 fine for toking in public. Colorado expressly forbids the comingling of medical and recreational cannabis. None of the nine legal marijuana states can engage in any interstate commerce.
I think we’d love to have interstate regulation of marijuana similar to alcohol.
SM: Just as a philosophy, I think, we can’t lean too heavily on the comparison to alcohol.
RB: Well, they are difficult to compare, since one of them could actually kill a child and the other one couldn’t. I appreciate your time.
This is always my primary complaint with both the “Treat Marijuana Like Alcohol” framing and its evolution into some states turning marijuana regulation over to alcohol commissions: marijuana ain’t alcohol!
Here we have about 500 places where 1-in-5 kids could get some marijuana flower or concentrates that has been tested for contaminants and labeled for potency, unlike what they get on the street, and it might get them too high, paranoid, and in need of a quiet place to nap. We also have thousands of places where 1-in-5 kids could get some beer or liquor and potentially overdose on it and die.
What concerns you more?
At the Cannabis Collaborative Conference in Portland, I asked Steve Marks, the head of the Oregon Liquor Control Commission, why are we so concerned that marijuana retailers only carded minors at an 81% rate, when the alcohol carding rate has been at or below 81% for four years?
Has the addition of marijuana to OLCC’s agenda led to a decline in carding kids for the drug that can actually kill them?
Is the extra workload why OLCC has conducted about half as many alcohol checks in the past two years?