Experts: Glut of marijuana in Oregon is cautionary tale


Associated Press

PORTLAND, Ore.

When Oregon lawmakers created the state’s legal marijuana program, they had one goal in mind above all else: to convince illicit pot growers to leave the black market.

That meant low barriers for entering the industry that also targeted long-standing medical marijuana growers, whose product is not taxed. As a result, weed production boomed – with a bitter consequence.

Now, marijuana prices here are in freefall, and the craft cannabis farmers who put Oregon on the map decades before broad legalization say they are in peril of losing their now-legal businesses as the market adjusts.

Oregon regulators on Wednesday announced they will stop processing new applications for marijuana licenses in two weeks to address a severe backlog and ask state lawmakers to take up the issue next year.

Experts say the dizzying evolution of Oregon’s marijuana industry may well be a cautionary tale for California, where a similar regulatory structure could mean an oversupply on a much larger scale.

“For the way the program is set up, the state [California] just wants to get as many people in as possible, and they make no bones about it,” said Hilary Bricken, a Los Angeles-based attorney specializing in marijuana business law. “Most of these companies will fail as a result of oversaturation.”

Oregon has nearly 1 million pounds of marijuana flower – commonly called bud – in its inventory, a staggering amount for a state with about 4 million people. Producers told The Associated Press wholesale prices fell more than 50 percent in the past year; a study by the state’s Office of Economic Analysis found the retail cost of a gram of marijuana fell from $14 in 2015 to $7 in 2017.

The oversupply can be traced largely to state lawmakers’ and regulators’ earliest decisions to shape the industry.

They were acutely aware of Oregon’s entrenched history of providing top-drawer pot to the black market nationwide, as well as a concentration of small farmers who had years of cultivation experience in the legal, but largely unregulated, medical pot program.

Getting those growers into the system was critical if a legitimate industry was to flourish, said Sen. Ginny Burdick, a Portland Democrat who co-chaired a committee created to implement the voter-approved legalization measure.

Lawmakers decided not to cap licenses; to allow businesses to apply for multiple licenses; and to implement relatively inexpensive licensing fees.

Oregon’s Liquor Control Commission announced Wednesday it will put aside applications for new licenses received after June 15 until a backlog of pending applications is cleared. The decision comes after U.S. Attorney Billy Williams challenged state officials to address the oversupply.

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