Oregon’s Liquor Control Commission is nearly ready to start issuing business licenses for recreational marijuana growers using a new online system for tracking applications from entrepreneurs hoping to sell the newly legalized drug.
Since January, the commission has been accepting applications from prospective growers using a web portal, and now it’s nearly ready to start using the electronic system to award licenses and keep tabs on these new businesses. Nathan Rix, a policy analyst for the commission, told StateScoop that they’ve received more than 800 applications so far, and they’re aiming to issue the first licenses for businesses by the end of April.
“Our commission, from the outset, saw an opportunity to build a new program that not only would be a state-of-the-art recreational marijuana program coming on the heels of what Colorado and Washington had done, but would also be a model for transformation with the agency on the liquor side,” Rix said.
Indeed, Rix noted that when the ballot measure to legalize marijuana — charging the commission with the regulation of its sale and taxation — passed in 2014, they quickly decided that they wanted to move the process “fully online.” While the state currently requires “upwards of 10 different forms” for people applying for liquor licenses, Rix said he was committed to making the new process “more like applying for a mortgage.”
“What we wanted to do is create a customer-friendly experience for these new marijuana entrepreneurs and also the growers who are very experienced in growing marijuana, but haven’t had that much experience interacting with government,” Rix said.
But he noted that the prospect of going through the procurement process for a new company to build the system seemed daunting, especially because the Legislature required the commission to start accepting applications by Jan. 4. Accordingly, he took a look at the firms already doing business with the state and discovered that NIC, a company focused on building web tools for the public sector, had already worked with Oregon to build sites like the state’s fishing license portal.
“We decided to contract with this existing firm and frankly they’ve been fantastic and very flexible to work with our policy team,” Rix said.
[Read more: Colorado figures out how to spend marijuana money]
Mark Pettinger, spokesperson for the commission’s recreational marijuana program, added the state’s unsuccessful effort to build a health care exchange following a slew of technical glitches meant there was pressure on the commission headed into the project. That’s why Rix and the rest of the team behind the effort solicited feedback from “over 100 different business owners” across the state as they worked to design the system.
Pettinger noted that the commission also held a series of workshops around Oregon in December to simultaneously collect feedback on the portal and educate people on the process of using it to apply for a license, ultimately attracting more than 4,000 attendees.
“We held their hand and took them step by step through the application, because we knew that if they encountered a hitch there, that could be detrimental to their experience with the agency,” Rix said.
But Rix added that they also looked outside the state for input. When he spoke with Colorado officials about their efforts to regulate the drug, they stressed “interagency collaboration” was key.
That advice encouraged him to start a conversation with Gov. John Hickenlooper’s office about the effort, and together they pulled in 15 agencies to create a kind of guidebook laying out how applicants would need to navigate the various levels of bureaucracy to get their businesses up and running.
“We explain that, though an applicant may be successful through our licensing process, there are sometimes upwards of five to 10 other state government agencies and numerous local governments that an applicant will have to interact with in order to get the necessary permits to be a successful business,” Rix said.
With that groundwork in place, Rix and the rest of the commission was able to meet their deadline and launch the portal on Jan. 4. Pettinger noted that a massive ice storm that day kept many state employees home, but the effort still went off “without a hitch,” and Rix added that they’ve received “great feedback” about the portal since then.
“Now that our systems are in place, our IT infrastructure is established, and the industry is more or less trained on how to use the tools, now we really have to use them ourselves and let them become part of our normal business processes,” Rix said.
But as the commission starts using the system to issue licenses — a process that will start this month and continue through the end of the year, Rix said — staffers would also begin to digitize the liquor license application system. The Legislature has already allocated some funds for the process, and Rix hopes to complete it within “the next year” or so.
“We’re excited that marijuana successfully convinced not only the legislative body, but most importantly our internal staff to help make that culture change from paper processing over to online liquor processing,” Rix said.
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