Think Out Loud

Some Portland cannabis businesses and workers to get boost from emergency relief fund

By Allison Frost (OPB)
Dec. 3, 2021 6:49 p.m. Updated: Dec. 10, 2021 11:42 p.m.

Broadcast: Friday, Dec. 3

The Oregon Liquor Control Commission granted recreational marijuana licenses to eight growers, the first licenses granted under the state's recreational cannabis program.

Photo of cannabis flower, OPB stock photo

John Rosman / OPB


Few businesses have been untouched by the pandemic. Some were able to get federal and other assistance, but not those in the cannabis industry, since it’s illegal under federal law. Cannabis businesses already faced challenges from being unable to access traditional financing and other banking services. Many continue to be targets for theft as they have to deal in cash. Now people of color, women and all businesses operated by a historically disadvantaged owner can apply for grants from the Portland’s Cannabis Emergency Relief Fund. The $1.3 million dollar fund will go directly to three organizations that will distribute the grants to businesses. The grant applications will be open early next year. NuLeaf is one of the nonprofits that will be distributing those grants, and its executive director, Jeanette Ward-Horton, joins us to tell us more.

The following transcript was computer generated and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. The pandemic disrupted almost every business in the country. And so the federal government responded in a huge way. It poured more than $1 trillion dollars in emergency assistance to the private sector through a variety of programs. But because of the ongoing federal prohibition on cannabis, businesses that sell marijuana weren’t able to access that money. Now, some Oregon companies and their workers could get help of their own. On Wednesday, the Portland City Council passed a $1.3 million Cannabis Emergency Relief Fund. The money will be distributed by three community partners; NuLeaf Project is one of them. It’s a Portland based nonprofit focused on supporting cannabis businesses owned by people of color. Jeanette Ward-Horton is the CEO of NuLeaf Project and she joins me now. It’s good to have you on Think Out Loud.

Jeanette Ward-Horton: Thank you, Dave, for having me. Good to be here.

Miller: It’s great to have you on. So, when I looked at the OLCC [Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commission] numbers from the last couple years, I saw that cannabis sales shot up last year. We heard that. There are a number of articles trying to explain the various reasons that people sought relief from cannabis for all of the horrors that were going on around them. So it seems like, at a terrible time for a lot of reasons, last year was a good year to be in the cannabis business. Is that wrong?

Ward-Horton: It is a mixed story. It’s different for entrepreneurs depending on how much capital they had access to, to manage the storms of covid – because it was additional cost for cannabis businesses – and to potentially capitalize on more people consuming cannabis. But how do you do that if you don’t have the capital to respond? So it was a mixed bag. And fledgling cannabis businesses and BIPOC-owned, minority-owned, cannabis businesses were in particularly tenuous positions. Funding was really critical for them and they didn’t have widespread access to it.

Miller: What challenges in the last year and a half have been really specific to the cannabis industry?

Ward-Horton: Great question. So the costs of responding to the pandemic affected all types of businesses, having the PPE and staffing shortages and challenges and just new ways of modeling and operating your business to stay safe.

Miller: Putting up plexiglass and on and on.

Ward-Horton: Exactly. So those costs were unexpected costs for business owners. And if you didn’t have the capital to respond to those costs, it might put you in a position where you can’t operate; you couldn’t afford that plexiglass and weren’t able to stay open. So that was a real thing happening. There were also, though, particular to cannabis, as the economy shifted and robberies went up… People were struggling, and cannabis is a cash business. So, unfortunately, cannabis businesses saw increased robberies that entrepreneurs have to respond to and spend money on. And then there were wildfires. So the agricultural businesses – and we have a lot of cannabis and hemp businesses – were impacted by the wildfires, both damaged by wildfires as well as the smoke and ash really impacting their product and their ability to sell their product.

Miller: Last year there was a fair amount of attention to the robberies of cannabis stores, even a fatal shooting of one employee in Portland; there’s a murder trial that’s pending. Is safety and are robberies still a major issue for stores? I feel like I’ve been hearing less about it, but that doesn’t mean it still hasn’t been happening.

Ward-Horton: It has still been happening. Unfortunately, we’ve gotten stories from our entrepreneurs that it is still happening. I’d like to tell you that it’s not. So I would say that what I know is happening is the OLCC as well as the industry are working together on rules and regulations around safety, around cameras and other important things in addition to police response to these incidents. Because they’re cannabis businesses, quite frankly, sometimes it feels like we’re downplayed, when we have this kind of problem. So, not to go–

Miller: Downplayed meaning that you get the sense that authorities just say, “Oh well it’s going to happen because you’re selling pot”? I mean what’s–

Ward-Horton: And you’re a cash business and, you know, canna-bigotry: “We’re not sure if you should be legal anyway.”

Miller: That’s the price you pay because you’re doing something that’s only quasi legal. That’s the gist …


Ward-Horton: Right.

Miller: … of what you feel like the businesses you’re dealing with, that’s how they feel about this.

Ward-Horton: Yeah. So the robberies have been a real impact. And again, you have to have the capital to respond to that. You lose your inventory, you have your windows broken out and you’ve got to repair those consistently. We had one retailer multiple times repairing their windows. So that puts fragile entrepreneurs, under-capitalized entrepreneurs, minority owned and women entrepreneurs, at more likelihood of closing and us losing that diversity in the market.

Miller: How much of everything you’re talking about is connected to this basic fact – nationwide fact – that cannabis-related businesses still don’t have access to the regular banking system?

Ward-Horton: That has a big impact on the industry. It makes it harder to do business in the industry. And it has, I think, a bigger untold impact on diversity in the industry. So cannabis ownership by minority entrepreneurs trails ownership in other industries. When in cannabis you can’t get access to banks, you have to fund your business through the bank of Mom and Dad.. or maybe it’s the bank of your uncle or your uncle’s former boss. Those networks you have of people with the kind of income who can take this kind of risk because cannabis is still federally illegal. So people making these kind of bets have the kind of funds where they can make these risks. Black and Indigenous and Latinx communities have less than 10% of the wealth of white communities – our own households, our networks household – so it makes it very difficult. It’s a bigger handicap for communities of color and female entrepreneurs and veterans and all of our entrepreneurs that have historically less access to capital to start a cannabis business. It’s a really hard industry. That’s what we’re here to do and what these emergency relief funds are here to do is bridge that gap.

Miller: So let’s turn to this new emergency relief fund, which, if I understand correctly, the city has said is a first of its kind in the country. About $1.3 million: That’s what the city council allocated just a couple days ago, compared to, I mentioned, the trillion dollars in all kinds of support for workers and businesses that the federal government has put forward in the last couple years. Admittedly this is just for the city and just for one industry, but it’s tiny compared to the other amounts of money out there. But how big a difference do you think it could make?

Ward-Horton: Well, great, thank you for pointing that out. It is tiny compared to what’s out there, so we want to call that gap out. But it can also make a big difference. So, let’s celebrate that the city is doing it and that we have access to these funds. And I know it can make a big difference because the city authorized emergency relief funds to cannabis businesses that NuLeaf granted to organizations in 2020. And we – without hyperbole – helped save companies and saved jobs via those funds. On average we granted businesses about $9,000. So that can seem small, but it had a big impact.

Miller: You gave out, if I’m not mistaken, $170,000 of emergency relief funding last year to something like 19 businesses. So can you give us an example of a business you helped and what they did with the money they got?

Ward-Horton: Yeah, I’d love to share a couple of companies. So I’ll share, first, a delivery company: Green Box. One of the things that we helped Green Box do… Please order your cannabis online from Green Box. [Dave laughs] What Green Box did with their funds is – people were staying at home, right. So, [as] I talked about, large organizations with more capital can take advantage of shifting consumer habits. Folks, thank goodness, were drinking less and consuming cannabis more; it’s better for your liver. And they were doing that with the convenience of delivery. I’m sitting at home; I’m not going places, and I don’t want to go places. So how does Green Box have the extra capital – he didn’t – to put out some extra marketing so that people know that his business exists, that they can order their cannabis and shelter in place from him. So we were able to supply marketing that allowed him to really accelerate his sales, that he wouldn’t have captured. Someone else with more money would have placed that marketing and his ads wouldn’t have shown up alongside those ads or in other places. He needed that money to compete and benefit from those increased sales, because that story of increased sales is, as I said, a tale of two businesses. And then the other thing we did, I’ll speak to another brand, Empower BodyCare; you can buy that at Nordstrom’s outlets. They were struggling with costs; they had seen some downshift in sales. I just mentioned Nordstrom’s outlets, there was less traffic everywhere, so that’s where they’re selling and people aren’t going, then what do they do? How do they save costs? They needed to move, to save costs, but for the long term, get to a cheaper facility, a cheaper place to operate. But you need money to move, right. Anyone who’s ever moved knows that that can be expensive all in itself. And then the OLCC charges you $1000 for paperwork to move your business. They didn’t have those funds. So how do I save money in the long term and really weather this storm if I don’t have the short term capital to do so?

Miller: What are you going to be looking for now that you have this chunk of money? You got close to half of the money from the city to disperse it to businesses. But I imagine there’s going to be more demand coming to you, and the other groups as well, than there is supply in terms of money to give out. So how are you going to decide who should get these grants?

Ward-Horton: Well, the city and the organizations who are making these distributions are working together on an application process that will make it both transparent and pretty clear, pretty black and white, and first come first served. One of the principles of these kinds of programs is not an arduous application, something people can do pretty easily, they don’t need to hire a consultant or a grant writer. It’s something that a busy entrepreneur can do quickly. And then, making it really transparent and straightforward on how you qualify and making it quick on the distribution of money – that’s really the goal – and then, again, first come first served. So the marketing and the marketing we will do as partners is really important so that all of our communities we serve, as an example, the NuLeaf Project, knows this is happening and is ready and waiting when those applications open.

Miller: And, first come first served, most likely people will be able to start applying in February? Is that the likely timeline now?

Ward-Horton: Yes.

Miller: You also, as an organization, lobbied for policy changes. I’m curious, before we say goodbye, what the top of your list is at the federal level.

Ward-Horton: Hmm, okay. Federal. That’s a great question. At the federal level, it feels like movement on national legalization is further out than maybe hoped. The Biden administration is not as warm to this as I think they should be. So that is longer away than we think, maybe 3-4 years even, and in the meantime, safe banking and having access to banks has been a piece of legislation that they’re trying to move through. That for me, and the conversation around banking, is really wrapped up in how banks and the banking system doesn’t serve women-owned businesses and Black-owned businesses and Latinx-owned businesses equitably. So, when the cannabis industry is opened up, I think our work will just continue really focused on how do we get funding to equitably flow to our historically excluded entrepreneurs.

Miller: Jeanette Ward-Horton, thanks very much.

Ward-Horton: Thank you.

Miller: Jeanette Ward-Horton is the CEO of NuLeaf Project. It provides funding, education and business coaching to cannabis entrepreneurs of color.

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