Sen. Ron Wyden addressed constituents' questions at a town hall held at Tigard High School's Deb Fennell Auditorium in Tigard, Ore. on Sunday, Jan. 1, 2020. Wyden spoke about topics ranging from health care to the conflicts with Iran.

U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, shown here at a 2020 forum at Tigard High School, says Oregon offers lessons and hope for what federal decriminalization could mean for the cannabis industry.

Donald Orr / OPB

The announcement of a new effort to legalize cannabis and expunge criminal records for non-violent marijuana-related crimes has people in Oregon’s cannabis industry hopeful that the state can use its experience to shape the legislation.

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Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, was joined by Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden and Sen. Cory Booker, D-New Jersey, in a press conference on Tuesday morning to outline the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act, which would legalize marijuana across all 50 states and provide more chances for historically marginalized communities to partake in the multi-billion dollar industry.

One large component of the measure aims to release people from jail who is currently serving time for non-violent crimes involving cannabis; those types of charges have disproportionately impacted Black and brown Americans since the United States’ so-called “War on Drugs” launched in the 1970s.

Members of the U.S. House, led by Portland Democrat and Oregon Rep. Earl Blumenauer, have tried to legalize cannabis several times in recent years, but the announcement of broad support by Senate leadership and an approach that prioritizes states’ right to opt-in is being characterized by members of Congress as “historic.”

“In 2019, there were more marijuana arrests than all other violent crime arrests combined, and the majority of those were for simple possession,” Booker said on Tuesday. “This is a grievous reality: lives are being destroyed every single day.”

The bill would also direct the federal Small Business Administration to create programs helping connect “economically disadvantaged” communities to entrepreneurial funding to establish businesses within the cannabis sector. That effort resembles work Oregon marijuana advocates and business leaders have tried done in recent years to eliminate a gross lack of diversity in the state’s industry, both in production and sales.

Jesce Horton is the founder and chief executive of LOWD, a recreationally licensed cannabis production and wholesale company based in Portland. He’s also a board member of the Oregon Cannabis Association, one of the state’s foremost advocacy and lobbying groups for cannabis interests.

He and his wife Jeannette Ward Horton are also two of the most outspoken advocates for bringing an equity lens to legalization efforts and shaping the growth of Oregon’s cannabis industry to help people from traditionally marginalized communities enter the business. Jeannette Ward Horton is the chief executive of the NuLeaf Project, which aims to help communities most targeted by criminalization build intergenerational wealth via the legal cannabis industry.

According to Jesce Horton, it will be important for Oregon’s industry leaders to take part in a robust public input process Sen. Schumer highlighted on Tuesday to drive the conversation around this bill in a way that focuses on trying to right historical wrongs.

“The only way to help reconcile is to make sure that we’re using the tax dollars, the economic opportunity, the entrepreneurial or small business opportunities, to help to uplift those communities,” he said.

For Horton, legitimizing the cannabis industry will require direct focus on two specific aspects of legislation. The first is ensuring that people who have been the target of criminal prohibition of cannabis are released from jail and have their records expunged in ways that allow them the same opportunities as any other American. Second, the effort needs to also focus on providing paths for formerly incarcerated people and traditionally marginalized groups to establish small businesses in their communities within the framework of a legal industry.

That means allowing the industry to connect with funding sources in America’s banking system — something that federal prohibition currently excludes cannabis businesses from doing — and establishing financial regulations that protect marijuana businesses both physically and fiscally.

Horton points to the fact that consumers still have to use cash to make purchases as a barrier to legitimizing the cannabis industry. It also leads to unsafe situations for business owners and their employees to be easy targets of crime.

He cites the recent example of a dispensary employee being murdered in Portland during an armed robbery as something federal legalization could help prevent by regulating marijuana businesses like any other industry and allowing them to access financial institutions.

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“Building the (financial) structure the correct way, but then being able to really interact with (cannabis) community as any other industry, is really important,” he said.

Horton, a Black business owner, is hopeful that the public input process outlined in the draft legislation will take into account the stories and experiences of people like himself.

According to Horton, although his business is thriving and his balance sheets look good, it’s hard for him to be able to grow his business because at the moment the only place to find funding is from “shark lenders” who are asking for more than their fair cut.

Amy Margolis, a Portland-based attorney specializing in cannabis law, said that she’s excited about the prospect of a new effort to legalize at the federal level because it represents another opportunity to center the discussion on restorative justice and social equity. She’s also the former executive director of the Oregon Cannabis Association.

“Things like expungement programs and grants for small businesses... that’s crucial,” she said. “So I was thrilled to see it.”

Margolis said that from her perspective, Oregon and its industry should also be a central part of this national discussion. With a number of leading national brands and local efforts on topics like the use of pesticides, the state has seen its fair share of growing pains. That experience will be critical in helping the federal government work out the kinks and avoid major mistakes.

“Oregon will be poised when federal legalization happens to be one of the premier production areas, but most importantly, we’re able to share our experiences over the course of legalization with those who are working on this piece of legislation,” she said.

Wyden told reporters on Tuesday that he recently made a fact-finding visit to Five Zero Trees, a recreational dispensary in Astoria.

He said his conversations with employees there highlighted the positive effect cannabis legalization has had in Oregon in terms of stable job creation with livable wages and good benefits — something he hopes to put on display for his Senate colleagues from states where legalization isn’t so acceptable.

Wyden spoke to OPB on Tuesday following the press conference and noted that his role as chairman of the Senate’s committee on finance and revenue will help guide fiscal regulation and the connection of the legal cannabis industry to the American banking system.

He’s also intrigued by the opportunity to showcase voices from the state’s cannabis business community in ways that lend their experience to how legalization has morphed since Oregon voters approved it in 2014. He’s hopeful that Oregonians can show the rest of the country what “cannabis common sense” looks like by illustrating how effective legalization has been in providing revenue for a wide range of other topics such as mental health and education.

As the Senate’s finance chair, Wyden is particularly interested in hearing feedback on aspects of the bill that deal with taxes.

“We feel we’re cutting the (tax) rate in half, and making it clear that there would be a chance to use that money for things like SBA assistance for small businesses,” he said. “I just want to hear their reaction to those provisions because we feel the way to go is to essentially treat cannabis like alcohol and tobacco.”

Wyden said he sees no reason for Republicans to oppose this bill because, to him, it very clearly prioritizes a state’s right to choose whether or not they opt-in.

“While the federal government is legalizing, no state is forced to do it,” Wyden said. “I think a lot of conservatives…(including Justice) Clarence Thomas, seem to be sympathetic to our approach now.”

Kim Lundin, executive director of the Oregon Cannabis Association, said she agrees that Republicans are beginning to come around to the idea of legalization and that this could be a bipartisan solution.

“I want to thank our home-state champion, Sen. Wyden, for his continued leadership on this topic,” Lundin said. “It’s a nuanced conversation and we’re glad to see there’s a comment period, so we’re going to be digging through the draft and offering our comments as well.”

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