Recently, there has been some talk here in Oregon that the state is not doing enough to support licensed cannabis businesses economically. These businesses generated more than $70 million in state tax revenue in FY 2017, after all. Although that revenue does not yet approach the combined $373 million in average annual revenue for beer, wine and spirits (combined), it appears to be closing the gap quickly, despite no option for interstate sales.
Comparing marijuana and alcohol receipts in Oregon is an awkward proposition, given the fact that Oregon marijuana revenues are collected through sales tax, whereas beer and wine vendors pay the state an excise tax, and liquor is distributed and sold by the state itself. At the end of the day, though, the economic impact of regulated cannabis will continue to gain on–and eat into–the alcohol economy, both in Oregon and nationwide. That is especially true if we factor in industrial hemp.
So what is the state doing to subsidize cannabis businesses in Oregon? Not much. The state did pass House Bill 4014 a few years back, which allows cannabis establishments to deduct business expenses allowable under the federal tax code when filing state returns; but that modest gesture pales in comparison to the institutional support given to craft beer and wine. Specifically, here are a few of the ways the wine industry is supported and subsidized by the state of Oregon:
- The state created the Oregon Wine Board (OWB) to promote development of the wine industry within the state, and coordinate both domestic and report marketing efforts for the industry. OWB receives administrative support from the Oregon Department of Consumer and Business Services, and spends around $2.2 million annually on promoting the Oregon industry.
- The state created the Oregon Wine Research Institute, housed at Oregon State University, to support Oregon grape growing and wine production.
- Oregon statutes offer a tax exemption for the first 40,000 gallons, or 151,000 liters, of wine sold annually by any producer in Oregon, which effectively exempts 90% of them from paying any state excise tax.
- The state offers grants for vineyards in an effort to increase tourism, as well as OWB grants related to viticulture and enology.
- Oregon winery license fees are paltry compared to cannabis license fees. (Both licenses are issued and billed through the Oregon Liquor Control Commission.)
The above list is not exhaustive: It represents about five minutes of lawyerly Google research. And at first glance, the favoritism shown to alcohol by the state feels unfair: As with the local wine industry, the Oregon cannabis industry has a world-renowned product, crowned with distinctive appellations. So why doesn’t the state do much for cannabis, aside from fulfilling its democratic mandate to roll out the program, and defending that program from the feds?
There are probably several factors at play:
- “Marijuana” remains a Schedule I controlled substance at the federal level. While states may see a path forward to licensing cannabis businesses under the Tenth Amendment (see here and here), actually using public dollars to support specific businesses may feel like a bridge too far.
- More people oppose the cannabis industry than the alcohol industry, so subsidies would likely face strong pushback from a vocal segment of the population.
- Many of the Oregon wine subsidies listed above were enacted in periods of greater budget stability for the state, back when timber revenues and related federal subsidies were a real thing, and the state pension system was not $22 billion in the hole. Today, those alcohol subsidies are entrenched (although recent efforts at further subsidies have failed.)
- The Oregon cannabis lobbies are smaller than alcohol lobbies.
- The creation of a cannabis regulatory regime has been a heavy legislative lift over the past few years here in Oregon, crowding out other conversations related to cannabis.
With all of that said, Oregon could probably do more for the cannabis industry, and it could be more creative. California has at least explored the idea of a state-chartered bank. Along those lines, Washington has helped its legal businesses to open bank accounts, and Hawaii has announced a cashless system for buying medical marijuana. None of these actions are subsidies, but they do make business operations easier and they ultimately contribute to economic efficiency.
Other jurisdictions have gone even further. Colorado, for example, has had a research grant program going back to 2014. And certain cities, like Oakland and San Francisco, have offered bona fide, traditional subsidies like free rent and incubator program support to select marijuana entrepreneurs. So it is possible to funnel public funding into cannabis businesses — at least certain types of businesses, in certain cases.
Oregon will kick off another legislative session in early 2019. Most likely, the state will discuss important regulatory issues, like our U.S. Attorney’s concern with oversupply, alongside the usual re-tread items, like social consumption and event permits. Although these new business permissions would be marginally helpful, hopefully there is also room for discussion on how the state can support its regulated cannabis industry more directly, as it does with alcohol. Then, when federal prohibition ends in a couple of years, we will want it looking something like this.