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Regulators ask for more money to police legal weed

Oregon's Liquor Control Commission wants to add 17 new positions and money to fund grants for investigations into illegal marijuana.

EO MEDIA GROUP - Oregon's Liquor Control Commission wants to add 17 new positions and money to fund grants for investigations into illegal marijuana.SALEM — Amid mounting pressure to shore up controls on legal cannabis, Oregon regulators want more money to enforce state marijuana laws and rules.

In early January, Attorney General Jeff Sessions alerted states that had legalized recreational marijuana that he was rolling back the previous administration's guidance on marijuana prosecutions. Sessions' memo effectively leaves it up to federal prosecutors in each state to exercise individual discretion when it comes to enforcing violations of federal marijuana law.

Billy Williams, Oregon's top federal prosecutor, claimed Feb. 2 that the state has a "massive marijuana overproduction problem," and that weed grown in Oregon is leaking into the illicit market and across state lines. And state auditors said in a Feb. 7 report that Oregon's cannabis licensing and tracking systems have weaknesses that could overlook illegal activity.

Those challenges, in conjunction with the infancy of the legal marijuana market and the explosion of people interested in entering the industry, appear to be prompting the Oregon Liquor Control Commission to ask for more funding in the middle of the two-year budget cycle.

The agency is asking for $2.74 million for 17 new positions, including a chief information officer, and its director supports more funding targeted toward illegal marijuana activity.

A potential amendment to a bill before the Senate Rules Committee would create grants distributed by Criminal Justice Commission to law enforcement activity for investigations targeting illegal marijuana "cultivation or distribution."

Although a specific amount of funding hasn't been decided, OLCC Director Steve Marks told lawmakers this week that it could be in the neighborhood of $3 million, funded by marijuana tax dollars.

"I actually believe this is the singular most important thing you'll do to help us regulate marijuana in the state of Oregon," Marks said of the proposed program.

Additionally, enforcing violations in the legal marijuana system "is going to be an intense area of growth for us," Marks said. "We are going to be writing a lot more violations in the near future."

The hires, if approved by the Legislature, will include 13 medical marijuana regulatory specialists and three administrative support staff. The 13 requested regulatory specialists would inspect and investigate medical growers, who are newly required to be tracked in the state's "seed-to-sale" tracking system.

The requested administrative support staff would work to process license applications and renewals.

Marks also said his agency would be more transparent and provide a report to the Legislature on enforcement of illegal marijuana activity before the start of the long legislative session in 2019.

According to the Oregon Liquor Control Commission, consumers bought about $520 million worth of recreational marijuana in Oregon last year. Sales are expected to generate $150 million in tax revenues in the state's current two-year budget, which ends in mid-2019.