The State Awarded a Half-Million Dollars to a Nonprofit That Promised the Impossible

The fact that BOLI now concedes it awarded half a million dollars for an apprenticeship program that couldn’t legally launch only intensifies questions about a process that’s already drawn criticism.

Val Hoyle (Courtesy Val Hoyle)

Two weeks ago, WW reported that a half-million-dollar grant awarded to a nonprofit co-led by the CEO of embattled cannabis dispensary chain La Mota had been abruptly canceled. Oregon Labor Commissioner Christina Stephenson revoked the grant after WW reported on the chain’s millions of dollars in tax liens and lawsuits.

Now WW has learned the grant’s intended purpose—to create a registered apprenticeship program in the cannabis industry—was never legally possible.

THE GRANT: As WW previously reported, a council overseen by the Oregon Bureau of Labor & Industries awarded $554,000 last August to the nonprofit ENDVR. The grant was to fund the creation of a state-registered apprenticeship program for lab workers in the cannabis industry. Registered apprenticeships operate as part of a U.S. Department of Labor program that works to create national standards and high-quality training for trades like construction and electrical work.

ENDVR said its apprenticeship program would train “botanical extractionists”—workers who extract secondary products from cannabis, such as oils and distillates, in labs.

Then-Labor Commissioner Val Hoyle vouched for the value of such apprenticeships. “We’re looking at a time when [cannabis] will be legal federally. Without federal legalization, this is a billion-dollar industry in Oregon,” Hoyle said July 27. “And when this can be exported across state lines, it’s going to be larger. So professionalizing the workforce is important.”

THE PROBLEM: BOLI officials now tell WW the grant was made in error because registered apprenticeship programs are subject to federal government standards, and cannabis is still categorized as a Schedule I controlled substance. That means ENDVR could never have registered its program as an apprenticeship with the state.

“The expenditure of appropriated funds on the registration of an apprenticeship in the marijuana industry is not an allowable use of the Office of Apprenticeship funding because marijuana remains illegal under federal law,” says Labor Department spokeswoman Monica Vereen.

Deputy labor commissioner Jessica Giannettino Villatoro corroborated that in an email: “There isn’t currently a pathway for a [cannabis] registered apprenticeship program, due to the status of the industry federally.”

That means a state agency granted half a million dollars to a program that could not have legally registered with the state as an apprenticeship.

Current BOLI Commissioner Christina Stephenson declined to comment on the prior administration’s decision to grant ENDVR $554,000 for an unregistrable apprenticeship.

Hoyle acknowledges “the grant was miscategorized” as an apprenticeship, but says she would fund such a program again: “Based on the information provided in their application and what we were aware of at the time, it was the exact type of program we wanted to put Future Ready Oregon funds to.”

Hoyle did not say whether she knew when her administration approved the grant that the program could not be registered. But in an interview earlier this month, Hoyle insisted she had not received guidance from the feds that there was anything illegitimate about a cannabis-related apprenticeship program.

“If I had guidance from the Department of Labor saying, ‘We think this is illegal,’ or ‘You’re not allowed to do it,’ that would have been brought to the [council] that made the decision,” Hoyle said. “I’m certain that would have affected the way they voted.”

WHY IT MATTERS: The fact that BOLI now concedes it awarded half a million dollars for an apprenticeship program that couldn’t legally launch only intensifies questions about a process that’s already drawn criticism.

The Oregon State Apprenticeship and Training Council awarded the grant to ENDVR despite council members initially expressing skepticism about the nonprofit’s high personnel costs ($97,000 for an executive director) and lack of industry support.

After Hoyle suggested ENDVR take a month to submit a more complete proposal, the council unanimously approved the grant in August.

ENDVR was co-founded in late 2021 by Rosa Cazares, the 34-year-old CEO and co-owner of the second largest dispensary chain in the state, La Mota. Cazares and her longtime partner and co-owner of La Mota, Aaron Mitchell, collectively contributed $26,000 to Hoyle by the time ENDVR was awarded the grant. (Hoyle returned all contributions to her BOLI reelection campaign, including a $20,000 donation from Mitchell, before running for Congress.)

Hoyle, now a U.S. representative, says the contributions made by the couple had no influence on her support of the ENDVR grant. She has pledged to reject any further contributions from Mitchell or Cazares.

Willamette Week’s reporting has concrete impacts that change laws, force action from civic leaders, and drive compromised politicians from public office. Support WW's journalism today.