ONTARIO — As the fourth recreational marijuana dispensary sets poised to open its doors in Ontario, frustration has been growing for the owners and its prospective employees who all have been in a standby status since November for the final two items needed to open: the state and city licenses.
On Nov. 8, 2019, Top Crop was issued its certificate of occupancy from Ontario. Now, owners are just waiting for the Oregon Liquor Control Commission to issue its license. From there, the city is ready to hand over its final license, according to Dan Cummings, director for Ontario’s Community Development Center. He has said repeatedly that the future dispensary has everything else it needs from the city.
The glut of work being dealt with by the OLCC since the state agency took over the regulation of recreational marijuana in 2015 has caused a major backlog for the agency. This has include everything from processing applications, licensing and other paperwork for prospective businesses and employees to investigating and processing potential violations by those in business.
The problem has become so overwhelming for the agency, that the issue of “centralized cannabis oversight” will be taken up during the short legislative session, which began on Monday.
‘Eligible for reassignment’
Top Crop owners, Bryan Chadwick, Matt Chadwick and Mike Hanigan, say they have done all they can to this point to get the dispensary open. This has included hiring a lawyer to try to find solutions, and driving out to the OLCC headquarters in Portland to try to meet with Jason Hanson, director of licensing.
In late December, Mark Pettinger, spokesman with the marijuana division of the OLCC, told the Argus the last notation he could see on his end for Top Crop was that the “file was made eligible for reassignment on Dec. 16.”
However, Top Crop owners say they were eligible for reassignment on Aug. 6, 2019. A Dec. 16 email from Hanson to Top Crop’s lawyer states the same. It goes on to say that date was selected as it was the date that the company provided requested documentation.
“As of today, there are 16 applications ahead of you before you will be assigned [an investigator],” reads Hanson’s email.
An earlier email from Aug. 7 also confirmed the reassignment status of Top Crop, with the following note:
“Due to extremely heavy workloads, we are asking that applicants be patient … Your application will not be in danger of inactivation while awaiting reassignment.”
Hanigan pointed out that the dispensary was still in the same spot — No. 15 — in the first week of January as it was on Nov. 3. And in November, Bryan Chadwick says the state told them they were processing “about 10” applications per month. At that pace, owners were hopeful they might be open by Christmas.
State is ‘keeping us in the dark’
It is a challenge to keep everybody on hold in the background without some kind of definitive timeline for opening, Top Crop owners say.
“We operate in the dark half the time for an industry that is highly regulated,” Matt Chadwick says, adding “we’re compliant in every way.”
Having broken ground in April the business was totally turnkey by Nov. 8, when the city issued the certificate of occupancy.
Prospective employees who’ve been verbally promised a job already had a two-month wait on getting their handlers cards from the state, Chadwick said, and now they are waiting on a job. Owners want to train those employees before they open doors. In addition, the Chadwicks have arranged for three managers to transfer from the Eugene store to help get things up and running, however all of those plans are currently on hold.
‘More chance for success’
Owners feel there will be “more chance for success with the limited competition” on this side of the state, Chadwick said, adding that when shops were initially opening in Eugene, there were no buffers established as in Ontario.
“There were shops opening right next door,” he said, adding that Eugene eventually established 1,000 foot buffers, but the shops that were already open were grandfathered in.
Eugene still has about 70 dispensaries for 170,000 people, and is the “most saturated” market in the state, Chadwick says.
Restrictions via buffering are optimal he said.
“It’s better going that direction than oversaturating the market,” he said, pointing out that Portland has several hundred dispensaries serving a population of 647,000.
It’s not just store owners and prospective employees who are in a holding pattern, there are others waiting too. Chadwick says among these are growers and wholesalers.
“There are a lot of frustrated people in the industry right now,” he says.
Cummings says he is hopeful the state delay on getting people licenses isn’t going to make a bunch of prospectors back out “because of economics.”
However, he said, it is his understanding that the state has a limited budget for the administration work required. As of Dec. 19, 2019 state records show 664 active licenses with 2,241 licenses of all types (all of which renew every year), and more than 4,600 applications all being handled by a small handful people.
“If they can only spend so much on administration, well then, their hand’s are tied,” Cummings said, adding that if the OLCC doesn’t add more people to deal with the influx, the “backlog will just be there forever.”
The OLCC is addressing that frustration in letters from to waiting prospectors, as it was in Top Crop’s case when they were notified of reassignment in August.
“We understand that you are wishing to meet certain timelines for your business, but every investigator is operating with a caseload that is beyond capacity at the moment,” the letter reads. “We hope this information assists you in whatever business decisions you feel you need to make.”