By the Numbers: How Oregon Fires Hit the Cannabis Industry

Fires in California, Oregon, and Washington have burned millions of acres of land since July, killing dozens of people and costing more than $1 billion. Those three states are also among the first in the country to have fully legalized cannabis, and are home to some of the largest cannabis farms in the country. In recent weeks, state regulators have been reaching out to cannabis business owners to provide guidance—and to assess the damage. 

Early signs are that the impacts are substantial. 

To begin measuring it, the Oregon Liquor Control Commission, which oversees cannabis regulation in that state, sent a Recreational Marijuana Licensee Wildfire Impact Survey to stakeholders in mid-September. “Wildfires around the state have had a devastating impact on Oregonians,” the email began. 

It continued: “Some recreational marijuana licensees have already notified the Oregon Liquor Control Commission that their businesses were destroyed by the fire. The OLCC is aware that there are many other licensees located in burn zones around the state. What OLCC doesn’t know is the extent of the damage to those licensed recreational marijuana businesses.” 

Cannabis Wire reviewed early results from the survey, and here’s what’s known as of September 29, from the sixty-four responses that have had been received by then (there are nearly 2,300 licensees in the state): 

• Of the twenty licensees located in “wildfire burn zones,” twelve were “a total loss.” This includes: nine retailers, two labs, and one producer

• Of those in evacuation zones, thirty-four were in Level 3, or, “go now/leave immediately,” five were in Level 2, or, “be set,” five were in Level 1, or, “be ready.” (The difference between 1 and 2: gather your belongings versus be ready to go.) 

• Of those licensees with crop damage, seven said they had “complete” damage, twelve  had “partial” damage, fifteen had “unknown” damage, and thirteen had “none.”

• So far, six respondents said they had transferred products out of danger, and eight  respondents said they cannot currently meet security requirements.

Cannabis regulators have had to make complex decisions in real time: What are the rules and regulations on the cannabis industry that need to be suspended in a fire emergency, and until when? When and how should business owners transfer their cannabis products? What sort of record-keeping is adequate? 

Oregon Liquor Control Commission spokesperson Mark Pettinger said the commission contacted California’s Bureau of Cannabis Control for a copy of the state’s disaster relief rules for cannabis “so we could take a look at how they considered the matter.” (The language Oregon regulators reviewed can be found in Section 40182.) Other than that, Pettinger said, there has been no formal outreach or communication between the main agencies from the three west coast states that regulate cannabis. Pettinger was responding to Cannabis Wire’s question about whether his agency has been communicating with other state’s regulators.

While no such survey is taking place in California, in September, California’s Department of Food and Agriculture sent out an email alert about “disaster-relief measures for licensed commercial cannabis farmers.” The detailed FAQ covers issues ranging from renewal fee extensions to crop relocation requirements. 

It began, “The year 2020 has brought us more than 8,000 fires that have burned millions of acres across the state, and we’re still in the thick of fire season. More than 18,000 firefighters continue to work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, battling fires throughout California, and many of these fires are wreaking havoc among our community of licensed commercial cannabis farmers.”

A spokesperson for the Department, Rebecca Forée, told Cannabis Wire that, while the Department doesn’t “track the overall impacts of the fires on cannabis farms in California,” it does “receive disaster-relief requests from our licensed commercial cannabis farmers if the fires, which are still raging across the state, are impacting their ability to remain compliant with state law.”

In Washington, so far, the industry is mostly unaffected. The state’s Liquor and Cannabis Board sent an email to stakeholders in late September regarding delivery delays. “Road closures and other impacts related to wildfires have created a barrier and challenge for cannabis producers and processors to deliver product within normal timelines,” the guidance began. “These delays in deliveries have created situations where retailers ordering product are refusing to accept the ordered product, in the interest of compliance with the timelines.” 

While the Board has not kept a count of those affected, spokesperson Julie Graham told Cannabis Wire, “We have been in contact with, and worked with licensees that were impacted by either fires, or more commonly, smoke. Officers were given instructions to be aware of those licensees in impacted areas and to make themselves available, answer questions, and be understanding when contacted.”

More By the Numbers: How Oregon Fires Hit the Cannabis Industry