AMY MARGOLIS wanted to set the record straight.
It was late January, and Margolis—an attorney and head of a political action committee that advocates for pot growers and other cannabis industry members—was irked at the rhetoric some of her fellow advocates were tossing around.
Legislators were proposing changes to the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program (OMMP)—changes that would allow Margolis' grower clients to tap into the forthcoming recreational pot market ["Two Sides of the Same Leaf," News, Feb 11]. But others hated the idea. The group New Approach Oregon was railing against any changes to the medical market, claiming patients would be worse off.
Margolis and her supporters penned a letter to lawmakers laying out their side of the issue. But before she sent it off, Margolis asked for input. She emailed a copy of the letter to Tom Burns, then the Oregon Liquor Control Commission's (OLCC) top official for recreational pot.
"Please do not share," she told Burns. "We will be sending this letter to the committee before the end of the weekend. Wanted you to see."
Burns' reply wasn't what you might expect from a bureaucrat who prides himself on neutrality. "KABOOM!!!!!" he wrote. "Can't wait to see what this does to the New Approach team."
Burns no longer has a say in Oregon's pot industry. He was fired March 26, after the OLCC says he shared a sensitive (though public) draft document with Margolis, and then lied about having done so.
The circumstances of that firing inspired lamentations from legislators who'd come to rely on Burns—and grumbling from some pot activists, who thought the relationship between Margolis and Burns looked too cozy. (Accusations that Margolis broke lobbying rules were tossed by the Oregon Government Ethics Commission and the Oregon State Bar.)
Given his prominent role in helping determine the shape of Oregon's weed market, the Mercury filed a public records request April 2 for Burns' emails to Margolis while he was at the OLCC. There are dozens of them, and they finally arrived June 5.
The documents offer an interesting picture of the jockeying between competing interests as Oregon works through the challenges of creating a massive new industry. But the hundreds of pages also show an exceedingly comfortable relationship between the state's top pot official and the industry he was getting ready to regulate—at a time when legislators were heavily reliant on Burns' opinions.
Burns helped Margolis think through how best to package messages to legislators, solicited her help with statements he was working on, and appears to have shared more than one internal OLCC document with her.
Some of that familiarity is to be expected. Burns—who helped create Oregon's medical marijuana dispensary system before being tapped to lead recreational pot—needed to intimately understand the industry, and Margolis is a valuable source. She's worked for years on growers' issues, and the Oregon Cannabis PAC she started lobbies for the interests of industry members and contributes thousands of dollars to the campaign funds of state lawmakers. (Full disclosure: Margolis has supplied legal advice about cannabis to the Mercury.)
But the emails also suggest a sympathy that wasn't offered to everyone—including groups that Margolis and her grower clients sometimes disagreed with.
"Taking sides on issues like that and leaking internal documents and then not telling the truth about it—I think that poses serious issues," says Anthony Johnson, the New Approach Oregon director who's occasionally clashed with Margolis on proposed changes to the medical marijuana system. "There was nothing like that between him and me, for sure."
Some examples, from the emails:
On January 8, Burns wrote Margolis asking her to give him names of growers she trusted "100 percent." "I want them to be my kitchen cabinet for grower issues," he said. (Johnson says Burns didn't extend a similar invitation to New Approach Oregon.)
Two days later, Burns and Margolis were hashing out a series of upcoming tours of marijuana grow sites state officials would be taking. Burns, unsolicited, offered up tips about how Margolis' clients should make their case for new medical pot laws (growers were looking to be licensed by the OLCC, a proposal that riled medical marijuana advocates). "I think the messaging for that tour needs to be..." Burns wrote, before launching into an ad pitch for the changes growers wanted.
On January 13, it was Margolis' turn to help. Burns was thinking through a line of argument that could "take some of the law enforcement and local government concerns" around pot "off the table." He wrote Margolis about this, asking for assistance in listing scenarios where it's okay to cultivate pot under Oregon's medical marijuana laws.
"Oh. I got this," Margolis replied, eventually sending along a lengthy email with the specifics Burns was looking for.
In mid-March, there was still controversy over proposed changes to the medical marijuana program, which legislators fear is a chief source of black-market pot. New Approach Oregon's Anthony Johnson and longtime activist Anthony Taylor were concerned with any tweaking of the system, but OLCC Chairman Rob Patridge was working to soften their stance.
On March 18, five days before he hit send on the email that would lead to his firing, Burns forwarded another document to Margolis—a spreadsheet that included potential compromises.
"This is the deal Rob [Patridge] thinks he struck with the Anthonies," Burns wrote to Margolis. The actual document Burns sent wasn't provided to the Mercury, but Margolis loved whatever it contained. The deal Patridge had supposedly worked out was "even better" than changes she'd been pushing for months, she said.
And she wasn't shy about telling Burns what to do.
"If, somehow, this is actually the deal," Margolis wrote, "everyone should sign this right away."
The emails have been a matter of gossip in corners of the state capital in recent days, but both Margolis and Burns downplay the exchanges. Burns tells the Mercury it's unfair to draw conclusions based on his conversations with one lobbyist. (Margolis formally registered as a lobbyist March 5, records show.)
"I'm friendly," he says. "People would say, 'What do you think?' and I would give my reaction. That's how it was designed to be."
But he notes: "Yes, Amy and I are friends."
Margolis, who currently serves on a subcommittee helping to craft OLCC regulations around pot, says her relationship with Burns wasn't out of the ordinary.
"He was doing what any good policy maker would do, and what OLCC continues to do, which is connect with members of the cannabis industry for a clear picture on sensible policy," she says. "And, I was doing what any good advocate would do, which is advocate for the policies decided on by the PAC."
Meanwhile, the OLCC could not be less interested in Burns and Margolis' interactions. Asked whether the agency had seen anything worrisome or improper while going through the exchanges, spokesman Tom Towslee wouldn't offer much comment.
"To be really honest, we just don't care anymore," Towslee says, while adding he doesn't expect similar behavior from Burns' successor, Will Higlin. "I can say that I'm sure Tom [Burns] thought that he was operating within the scope of his job."
Not everyone sees it that way.
Johnson—a semi-frequent topic of discussion between Burns and Margolis—says the emails show a relationship that "seems a bit excessive."
"If he's only seeking advice or communicating with one PAC or special interest," Johnson says, "then I think that does give people pause."
And Jim Moore, a political science professor at Pacific University and director of the school's Tom McCall Center for Policy Innovation, says it's not uncommon for regulators to seek out the expertise of the industries they oversee—but it's possible Burns got too close.
"It looks like he definitely was beginning to go beyond what his OLCC mandate might have been" Moore says. "It's hard to tell that he did do that."