Oregon's Firing of State Marijuana Director Raises Questions

Tom Burns was ousted after he allegedly leaked a confidential document to an attorney and lied about it.

We've had legal medical marijuana in Oregon since a ballot measure passed in 1998, but we've only had dispensaries for the past couple of years, after the state legislature finally passed a bill creating a licensing and regulatory system.

In the 2014 general election, Oregon voters approved an initiative legalizing adult use of marijuana. The state legislature and the Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC) have been working for the past several months to set up the licensing and regulatory system for that. The man who the state appointed to set up its adult use marijuana program was Tom Burns.

Burns had been involved in the state's medical use program for several years, and he was the point man at the Oregon Health Authority in successfully setting up the state's licensing and regulatory system for medical marijuana. That experience is why the legislature chose to move him over to the Liquor Commission to head up the development of the larger adult use program.

On Mar. 26, Burns was fired by the OLCC. At the time, no reason was given. Personnel decisions are in the hands of the OLCC's executive director, Steve Marks. Burns was considered an at-will employee, so no reasons had to be given, no human resources investigation, nothing. That was supposedly the end of the story. Except that it wasn't.

A lot of people in Oregon were surprised, and concerned, by what happened. It had been rumored that Burns did not get along with the director and the chair of the OLCC, Rob Patridge. A first, the spokesperson for the commission, Tom Towslee, claimed Burns' firing was not due to a personality conflict 

The OLCC held its regular meeting the next day, and on that Friday morning, Mar. 27, the Liquor Commission folks refused to comment.

Finally, very late on Friday, the OLCC released a copy of the letter which they sent Burns letting him know he was fired, along with some emails and a document that they say he leaked.

Later, Towslee clarified that the firing was definitely about the leak of this document. He said that it was an internal policy document and called it confidential.

I've read the document. (A draft of that document had been circulating for several days prior to Tom Burns being fired.) It's a proposal to the legislature's committee on implementing Measure 91 that outlines some compromises that some industry and movement leaders were willing to agree to. The document was produced through meetings between the OLCC's Patridge, and three representatives from the marijuana industry and reform: Anthony Johnson with New Approach Oregon; Anthony Taylor with Compassionate Oregon, a longtime activist I met back in 1984 while working on the Oregon Marijuana Initiative; and Brent Kenyon, who owns a medical cannabis clinic and is also an activist.

The memo is significant, in that it seems to lay out a path forward that the state and the industry can agree to, which also preserves the medical program for patients in real need.

It spells out rules that would protect small-scale medical growers and even allow some of them to sell to dispensaries without having to deal with the reporting requirements and paperwork that larger growers will face. It's a fairly reasonable document, all things considered. 

The reporting requirements for larger growers has been somewhat controversial, it must be said. Oregon's medical program didn't allow dispensaries for a very long time. Growers were not allowed to charge patients; reimbursing for expenses was even forbidden for quite a while. Before we got the dispensary law, the legislature did approve a measure that allowed limited reimbursement to growers, but only for legitimate expenses like electricity. They weren't allowed to charge for time and labor. Growing for a patient legally had to be a labor of love, not a way of making a living.

That worked while Oregon law forbade sale. Now though, with legally licensed and regulated dispensaries, that lack of oversight was becoming a concern. The federal Cole Memo says that states need to make efforts to prevent “the diversion of marijuana from states where it is legal under state law in some form to other states,” and to deter “state-authorized marijuana activity from being used as a cover or pretext for the trafficking of other illegal drugs or other illegal activity.” 

For me, the OLCC has little credibility in this situation. They started out badly by claiming that this was a confidential internal document. It clearly wasn't. It's on plain paper, not on an OLCC letterhead. The document is not labeled confidential. There are three signatories listed, all of whom are reformers in the industry. The letter is not signed by Rob Patridge, Steve Marks or anyone else at the OLCC. It appears to be a draft memo from three industry and reform representatives to the committee. That's certainly how it's been described in other report, such as this in the Willamette Week:

“Burns and Marks were editing a draft proposal written by legal-marijuana advocates… Advocates wanted the OLCC's blessing to send the draft proposal to Sen. Ginny Burdick (D-Portland) and Rep. Ann Lininger (D-Lake Oswego), who co-chair the legislature's joint committee on marijuana.” 

The person who Burns shared the memo in question with is another industry leader, attorney Amy Margolis. She's the head of a large marijuana growers political action committee in Oregon, and a major player in the development of Oregon's adult use program. She's someone whose input on that memo would be valuable and whose buy-in on that memo might be a key to the legislature going along with it.

Towslee now says that the real problem ultimately was that Burns had lied about sending the email. No details, no minutes of a meeting, no records, nothing has been released to prove what they're alleging.

Recently, the governor of Oregon, John Kitzhaber, was forced to resign for, well, a lot of reasons really. One element in that scandal, which is still unfolding, involved the governor attempting to have some of his emails deleted. He ordered staff at the state's data archive to delete masses of emails, which they rightly refused to do. 

The point of this aside is that there's no way any state employee in Oregon could not be aware that all emails they send are archived permanently and can always be retrieved. Yet, we're also told by the OLCC that Burns supposedly tried to delete emails.

In The Oregonian's most recent article on this affair, Towslee says that Margolis shared the document with others. There's no indication of who these others might be, or what the fall-out was from it. He went out of his way to say that Margolis "has no culpability here.” 

How was Margolis to know that this was confidential? State legislators had seen it. The three listed as signers had passed it around to their members and supporters. The lobbyist for her growers PAC, Geoff Sugerman, was quoted in the Willamette Week saying that a draft of that proposal had been circulating at the legislature for about a week. This is not what you call confidential.

Right now, no one – except Tom Burns, Steve Marks and Rob Patridge – actually know the real story. Is the OLCC's story accurate? There was too much manipulation that things just don't make sense.

Burns was the luncheon speaker at the Patients Out of Time conference in Portland last year. He was given a wonderful, laudatory introduction by Sandee Burbank. His interaction with that audience – which included members of the state's advisory committee on medical marijuana and other activists – was exceptionally friendly.

Was Burns actually trying too hard to protect the medical marijuana program while the OLCC focused on raising revenue and expanding their power? Were Marks and Patridge simply jealous that one of their employees was the star of this show? I don't believe we know the whole truth yet. Stay tuned...

Doug McVay

Doug McVay

Writer and KBOO radio host based in Portland, Ore. He's also editor of DrugPolicyFacts.org.