By Joseph Ditzler

The Bulletin

Since 2015, the Oregon Liquor Control Commission has more than tripled the number of people hired statewide to check backgrounds and enforce state law on recreational pot.

But the agency needs more, particularly agents whose jobs are to ensure marijuana license holders comply with the law, a state audit found. The audit, released in February by the Oregon Secretary of State, among other findings recommended the OLCC Recreational Marijuana Program plan for “an adequate number of trained OLCC (compliance) inspectors.”

The Bend region, which stretches west to east from Deschutes to Baker counties and north to south from Sherman to Malheur counties, has one enforcement agent, with another coming on duty within a week, the OLCC regional manager said Tuesday.

But most counties in the region have banned commercial marijuana. Of the handful of communities where recreational cannabis is sold, Bend has the highest concentration of retail shops east of the Cascades.

The region scored 100 percent compliance on three underage decoy operations in which agents and decoys visited 33 retail cannabis shops over three days in January and February, according to the OLCC. The overall state compliance rate in January stood at 89 percent.

The Secretary of State audit also found fault with the OLCC seed-to-sale online tracking system and recommended changes to improve that system. Together, those shortcomings “inhibit OLCC’s ability to monitor the recreational marijuana program in Oregon,” the audit report stated.

The legislation that legalized marijuana in Oregon also stipulated that licensing fees pay most of the costs of regulating the industry. The agency has the money to fund new hires, but the Legislature must approve requests for increased staffing.

“We have the ability to raise fees on licenses, licensing fees, in order to pay the costs for the program, including additional personnel,” said Mark Pettinger, OLCC spokesman for the marijuana program. “But we need the Legislature’s blessing to fund those positions. We can’t just do it ourselves.”

The 2018 legislative session began Feb. 5 and lasts just 35 days.

At the start, the state underestimated the demand for recreational marijuana. Based on the experience of Colorado and Washington, the OLCC for the 2015-17 biennium estimated $16 million in tax receipts and $2.4 million in licensing fees. The governor’s recommended budget estimated even less. Instead, the state collected more than $70 million in taxes in fiscal year 2017, according to the Oregon Department of Revenue. The amount collected in licensing fees was unavailable.

For 2017-19, the OLCC budgeted $14.3 million, $3.8 million more than the previous biennium, for the recreational marijuana program. With it, the commission added 24 more licensing agents for a total of 36 and three new enforcement agents for seven total. From 12 licensing and enforcement agents in 2015-17, the agency has grown to 43 in the current biennium.

The number of active licenses and pending applications statewide stood at 3,435, on Tuesday, with 139 total in Deschutes County. Most license holders and applicants from Deschutes, 68, are recreational marijuana growers. Another 29 are retailers; the remainder are processors (24), wholesalers (16) and testing labs (two), according to the OLCC. Some businesses hold more than one license type.

In Bend, OLCC Regional Manager Laura Shepard said the licensing agents answer to supervisors in Portland, but the enforcement agents in Central Oregon answer to her.

“It’s a very heavy workload,” she said. “A lot of it, at this point, is complaint driven.”

In addition to answering complaints, the OLCC also is on a campaign to reduce the number of retailers caught selling cannabis to customers not of legal age. Only adults age 21 and older may legally purchase cannabis or cannabis products from a licensed retailer. Undercover checks by OLCC enforcement agents using underage decoys in December and January to attempt marijuana purchases found no violations in Bend, Madras, La Pine, Pendleton and The Dalles

— Reporter: 541-617-7815,