As the cannabis industry matures, more and more companies are recognizing the need for professional lobbying organizations and the benefits of being united in their fight against unfair regulations. But few trade groups have been as successful as the Oregon Retailers of Cannabis Association (ORCA), which now has more than 400 members across Oregon and recently helped pass the nation’s first bill to eventually allow cannabis exports.
Executive director Casey Houlihan and deputy director Jesse Bontecou both have backgrounds in electoral politics and public policy, having worked on numerous candidate and issue campaigns in their careers, as well as serving as staff for elected officials. They began working in cannabis shortly after Oregon voters overwhelmingly passed the state’s legalization initiative, Measure 91, in 2014.
Led by a small group of medical cannabis dispensary owners, ORCA was founded in 2015 to ensure their businesses would have a clear and fair path to transition into the adult-use cannabis marketplace.
“More importantly,” Houlihan adds, “they wanted to ensure that the industry could be involved with the Legislature and the OLCC (Oregon Liquor Control Commission) as they implemented Measure 91 and crafted cannabis laws and regulations. They wanted to ensure that there was a voice in the room fighting for the needs of the industry.”
Houlihan spoke with Marijuana Venture about the current state of the nonprofit and the overall industry in Oregon.
Marijuana Venture: What’s the No. 1 lesson you’ve learned since the passage of Measure 91 legalized adult-use cannabis in Oregon?
Casey Houlihan: Every cannabis business really needs to be part of an organization that is fighting for the industry’s interests in a strategic, organized and, ideally, united fashion. Right now, we are all building the legal and regulatory foundation for a $50-plus-billion-a-year industry. This is especially true for early adopter states like Oregon. And we can’t do that effectively if we are not united and organized.
Look around at every other industry; they all have trade associations and lobbying groups for a reason. It benefits them tremendously. The more organized and united we are as an industry, the better regulations we will have, the more stable the marketplace and the more fun this will all be. So get involved, get organized and get political, and if you are not currently a member of a trade association, then be sure to go join one.
Folks shouldn’t be afraid to ask questions. There’s a lot of ambiguity in this industry, but with the right help folks have managed to be successful. Don’t hesitate to reach out for help if you are unsure.
Oh yeah, and pay your taxes!
MV: What do you consider to be ORCA’s greatest win as it pertains to rules and regulations?
CH: We’ve been involved in a pretty hands-on way at every step since Oregon passed cannabis legalization is 2014.
The specific legislation that we’ve helped pass that has most significantly helped grow the industry was probably the bill to allow for early adult-use cannabis sales through existing medical cannabis dispensaries, which went into effect in October 2015 (Senate Bill 460). It increased the timeline for getting those sales online by about a full year. That bill generated hundreds of millions of dollars in adult-use sales during that time period that never would have taken place — legally, anyway — without the early sales bill.
In the long run, I think our most recent achievement of getting Oregon’s cannabis export bill, SB 582, will prove to be our greatest win and will have the greatest positive impact on the cannabis industry at large. Oregon has been a production state for decades and that’s going to be a critical element to the future success of our state’s cannabis industry too. We need to be ready. Legal cannabis exports are essential for the industry to truly thrive, and we are really proud to be driving that conversation right now.
MV: How has ORCA evolved over the years?
CH: Our core mission is still our core mission: fighting for a robust, thriving and respected legal cannabis industry. And our strategic goals are the same:
1) Create the future we want as an industry. We are focused on proactively working to create the legal foundation and business environment this industry deserves.
2) Reduce costs. Undoing and fixing regulations and restrictions that cost much more than any benefits they provide.
3) Creativity and flexibility. Passing new laws and regulations that make it easier for the industry to develop, grow and innovate.
MV: Is the organization still mostly focused on the retail side of the industry?
CH: A little more than half of our overall membership is made up of retailers. Our non-retail members include many of the state’s finest producers and processors as well as several of the largest wholesalers and ancillary businesses that provide essential business services to the industry and are dependent on a vibrant retail marketplace themselves.
A healthy and diverse marketplace is essential to the entire industry from farms on up, though much of our policy work still focuses on the needs of our retail members. That being said, our policy work has been no more static than the industry, which is to say we have greatly expanded our focus and now work on policy and regulations affecting every aspect of the supply chain and every type of license. But I think it is a mistake to silo different types of policy into retail, processor, grower categories and so on. If a pointless regulation is costing growers a lot of money to stay in compliance, that cost just travels down the supply chain and eventually hinders retailers’ ability to meet the demands of the cannabis consumer and compete with the illicit market. If ORCA is able to get rid of pointless regulations on farms, then the whole industry benefits and it becomes easier for everyone to be successful.
MV: How would you like to see Oregon’s business evolve?
CH: We would like to see Oregon cannabis businesses and Oregon cannabis brands grow beyond the borders of our own state and capitalize on the wealth of knowledge and experience and know-how and genetics that have been honed here over generations.
We want these brands to thrive and continue to produce the highest quality cannabis products in the country — and for consumers in every state to be able to try Oregon cannabis. Simply put, we want to see Oregon be America’s cannabis breadbasket.
MV: What do people get when they join ORCA, and how does the organization benefit its members?
CH: There’s so much that’s included in a membership. We’ve really made it a point to make the value proposition extremely favorable, especially for new businesses just starting out. We offer a variety of benefits to members, including access to credit union accounts across Oregon, free policy advice, email updates on important policy changes, weekly wholesale reports, monthly retail sales summaries, admission to our monthly membership meetings, promotional opportunities, discounts and savings on advertising and events — like Marijuana Venture’s RAD (Retail and Dispensary) Expo — and so much more.
All of those specific benefits exist on top of the direct benefits to business owners that result from our policy, lobbying and advocacy work. We’ve already helped grow the size of Oregon’s cannabis industry exponentially through direct political action. As an industry, we are truly stronger together.
MV: Do you have any advice for others starting state business organizations?
CH: We can’t stress enough the importance of having some very solid lawyers in your corner. Ours have come through multiple times when we’ve faced various crises, and I don’t know what we would have done without them.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.