Inside Oregon’s Finest, a medical marijuana dispensary in Portland’s Pearl District, a young woman carefully fills rolling papers with Rose City Cinex, a strain of cannabis. Scented candles perfume the air, nearly masking the odor of marijuana. Santas and nutcrackers line the shelves above.
Tom Burns makes a point of dropping by shops like this. The director of Oregon’s medical marijuana dispensary program uses his impromptu visits to learn about products, like wax and shatter, chat up patients at the counter and look for issues that might catch an inspector’s eye.
He wanders over to a display of vaporizer pens. Called vape pens, the portable electric devices allow patients to consume marijuana discreetly. Burns asks owner Troy Moore, 40, about the popularity of the devices, which like electronic cigarettes, are odorless and smokeless.
“This is definitely a movement that is gaining speed quickly, especially with new smokers or people new to cannabis,” Moore says. “This is way more appealing to them than loading a pipe.”
“Or crushing your beer can,” Burns says.
When it comes to the modern marijuana market, it’s been a steep learning curve for Burns, a 61-year-old with a penchant for bow ties and a long career in the straight-laced world of state government. After 18 months overseeing the dispensary program, Burns has a new gig: on Tuesday he was named director of marijuana programs for the Oregon Liquor Control Commission, the agency charged with implementing the new law that regulates the production and sale of cannabis for the recreational market.
Steven Marks, executive director of the liquor control commission, said Burns’ experience building the medical marijuana dispensary program made him the ideal fit for the job.
“Tom has navigated these waters before on the medical side,” said Marks in a statement released Tuesday morning. He said Burns will “lead the implementation of Oregon’s recreational marijuana law with a measured approach that protects children, promotes safety, and brings the marijuana industry into the regulated market.”
As Oregon’s point man on all-things-marijuana, it’ll be Burns’ job to fill in the five-member liquor control commission on the difference between a joint and a vaporizer pen and why a consumer might prefer to snack on a slice of cannabis-infused lemon pound cake instead of lighting up.
He’ll be charged with shepherding the complex rule-making process that will guide how marijuana is produced, taxed and sold in Oregon. And he’ll have to do it on a tight timeline: By law, new rules for the industry must be in place by late 2015 and the state must begin accepting applications for growers, processors and retailers by January 2016.
The job, which comes with a $ 101,952 annual salary, will require diplomacy. While Oregon voters approved legal marijuana in November, it remains a hard sell in parts of the state, particularly rural ones.
Early next year, Burns and his bosses — the liquor control commission — will hit the road to hear how Oregonians want the new program to look.
“We need to go and listen and have a conversation with them and understand what their concerns are so that when we make rules, we are not making rules for the I-5 corridor,” Burns said.
Job: Director of marijuana programs for the Oregon Liquor Control Commission
Education: Bachelor’s degree from California State University at Stanislaus; studied economics and political science
Family: Burns has a longtime partner, Brent Miller, who retired as director of the California State Library System; the couple has a son, Alex, 19.
Work history: Burns worked in California state government for 17 years, beginning as education policy advisor to then-Gov. Ronald Reagan. He went onto work as a policy advisor and later executive officer for state Senate. From 1990 through 2008, he worked as a lobbyist for the pharmaceutical industry, representing G.D. Searle & Co. and later GlaxoSmithKline, where he went onto become vice president for state government affairs. In 2002, while working for GlaxoSmithKline, Burns and his family moved to Oregon. He retired from the pharmaceutical industry in 2008 and took a job as an aide to state Rep. Mitch Greenlick, D-Portland. In 2009, he was hired as director of pharmacy programs for the Oregon Health Authority. He was tapped to manage the dispensary program in 2013.
Interesting tidbit: Burns and his partner are minority owners of Chapter 24 Vineyards in Dundee.
Burns has spent the past year meeting with dispensary owners and cannabis growers, giving friendly and occasionally firm lectures to a nascent industry going legit. He’s visited southern Oregon marijuana grow sites, large-scale indoor cultivation operations in Portland and talked with makers of popular products like marijuana concentrates, all in an effort to school himself on a thriving industry that, once established, state officials think could generate up to $ 40 million a year in revenue.
Marijuana industry insiders applauded Burns’ appointment, saying he’s approached the job with an open mind.
“It’s just not your typical industry for all sorts of good reasons,” said Amy Margolis, a Portland lawyer who represents marijuana growers and served on the advisory committee that came up with rules for medical marijuana dispensaries. “In a group of people that are generally mistrustful — and again for good reason — of people in positions of power, Tom came in and made them feel comfortable. That is a victory.”
But others, like Katy Fackler, a Northeast Portland resident, are disappointed with how Burns has run the dispensary program. She worries he’ll be too accommodating of the cannabis industry when crafting the new program.
Fackler is upset that the Oregon Health Authority signed off on a medical marijuana dispensary in her Beaumont-Wilshire neighborhood. She said Burns rejected her argument that the Sylvan Learning Center near the dispensary site should count as a school. State law does not permit dispensaries within 1,000 feet of a school.
She called Burns “absolutely 100 percent too accommodating to the industry.”
“It’s a new frontier,” Fackler said. “It needs to be handled with grace and sensitivity, kindness and professionalism and none of those aspects have been seen by me.”
Burns, a fine wine aficionado whose most recent experience with marijuana dates back four decades, is personable, quick to laugh and willing to offer candid opinions that sometimes seem politically questionable.
Standing outside the entrance to Oregon’s Finest, Burns noted the frosted glass windows — the shop’s owners’ effort to keep marijuana from public view as required by the state. Burns wondered if it’s time to do away with the rule.
“If it’s going to be legal, let’s stop hiding it behind walls and doors,” he said. “You can put security systems in place and make sure no one gets to the product. It’s time to let people see what’s going on. It will cause a dialogue among the supporters and opponents and that dialogue always leads to better outcomes.”
Burns spent 17 years in California government, working as a longtime policy advisor to Republican state lawmakers. In 1990, he left to take a job as a lobbyist for the pharmaceutical industry, eventually becoming vice president for state government affairs for GlaxoSmithKline. He and his partner, Brent Miller, a retired librarian, moved to Oregon with their son in 2002.
Burns eventually landed at the Oregon Health Authority, where he oversaw the state’s pharmacy programs. He said he was “agnostic” on the subject of marijuana when Bruce Goldberg, then director of the health authority, asked him to take on the dispensary program.
“I used marijuana back in college, but not in my adult life,” said Burns. “I wasn’t even aware of anyone who used marijuana in my adult life. I am a wine drinker. I love my wine. We have lots of parties with lots of wine consumed, but marijuana never came up.”
He expected to encounter “long-haired hippies coming out of the woods wearing tie died T-shirts.” Instead, he said he met ambitious entrepreneurs willing to “work inside a legal system.”
Hired to oversee the dispensary program in 2013, Burns spent months getting schooled on modern marijuana, including the dizzying range of products and ingestion methods on the market.
At one point in the process of drafting rules for dispensaries, Burns decided to ban marijuana-infused foods, such as sweets and other treats, worried about their appeal to children. The backlash from medical marijuana patients who prefer eating the drug to smoking it was swift and fierce. Burns quickly reversed course.
“I learned why these are here,” he said, plucking a lollipop from a candy display at Oregon’s Finest. “These guys, if they can’t inhale, they need their medicine and it’s very bitter. I didn’t know that 15 months ago. I had no idea about that. They need the sweetness of it in order to get it down.”
While Burns isn’t like to be anyone’s go-to source on marijuana strains, he said he has a better grasp of cannabis and the consumers who use it.
“That was the other thing I didn’t understand,” said Burns. “Patients feel strongly about what the bud looks like, what it smells like. I just remember I got it when it came in a baggie that had gone through 14 different pockets.”
The state, which for years was home to a thriving unchecked retail market for medical cannabis, is now home to about 200 regulated medical marijuana dispensaries.
Burns’ son, Alex, 19, recently got a job at one of them.
When his son first delivered the news, Burns said he worried only about a potential conflict of interest given his role as program administrator. Once state lawyers gave their OK — provided Burns refrains from making decisions affecting the dispensary where his son works — Burns embraced his son’s new job.
Said Burns: “He’s at the cutting edge of an industry.”
With its slate gray concrete floors and shelves made from reclaimed wood, Oregon’s Finest has the feel of an upscale boutique — except what’s for sale happens to be marijuana, which goes for $ 10 to $ 14 a gram.
Patrons, all of them Oregon medical marijuana cardholders, browsed glass jars of marijuana flowers, which make up about 70 percent of the store’s sales, said Moore. Moore said he’d like to join the recreational market, but worries about the requirements. Plus he’d like to maintain his medical marijuana shop.
Burns suggested the possibility of two storefronts: one for recreational marijuana and the other for medical. Under the medical marijuana program, dispensaries can serve patients between 18 and 21 years of age. In the recreational market, only people 21 and older can buy cannabis.
It’s a quandary that Burns is already hearing about from dispensary owners – and one that represents some of the complicated issues facing policy makers and the Oregon Legislature as they consider how to balance the state’s recreational program with its popular medical one.
“You can decide: no minors period — those kids 18 to 21 just can’t get their meds,” Burns told Moore. “That’s an option, but I am not sure that serves the medical side.”
Asked for reaction to Burns’ appointment to the new marijuana post, Moore said it’s good news. But his reservations about the yet-to-be-written rules and requirements for the new industry remain.
“Ask me that again in a year,” he said. “We’ll see how it goes.”
— Noelle Crombie