If you had to sum up 20 years of medical cannabis regulation in California in a word, that word would be “chaos.”
Regulation is a patchwork of local rules varying from town to town, with patients, growers and collectives subject to the whims of mayors, city councils, district attorneys and sheriffs. What’s legal in one county can get you thrown in jail in another.
Meet the woman in charge of finding some method to the madness in California; California’s first “cannabis czar.” Lori Ajax was appointed this year to oversee implementation of the Medical Marijuana Regulation and Safety Act, a job that involves creating a state agency from scratch and helping to draw up and implement new regulations.
And then there’s the elephant in the room. If Californians approve legalizing recreational cannabis November 8, her job could become infinitely more complex. And time is not really on her side, with a mandate to begin accepting license applications for medical-cannabis businesses on January 1, 2018.
She may be a Republican who’s never touched the stuff, but she welcomes the challenge.
“That is an aggressive timeline and it’s a lot of work but we’re committed to getting it done. We’re confident we can do it, and there are a lot of moving parts,” said Ajax, 50.
“There are a lot of pieces to it but we’re confident we’re going to get it done and get it done right.”
Before being appointed by Governor Jerry Brown to run the Bureau of Medical Marijuana Regulation, Ajax worked for years in the state’s Department of Alcohol and Beverage Control, rising through the ranks to chief deputy director.
While she touted her experience enforcing alcohol laws, Ajax knows cannabis is a very different ball game, emerging from decades of prohibition and 20 years of little state oversight.
“Alcohol laws and regulations have been around 80 years or so. There’s a difference with cannabis. There’s a lot of stuff going on in a very quick timeframe, a lot of changes, a lot of things on the horizon,” she said.
But she likes a challenge and thought her skills would translate well to the new role, so she accepted the appointment. When Ajax took the reins earlier this year, she was literally a department of one.
She has since hired 11 people, with plans to expand to 15 or so next year. One of the first challenges has been to build an information technology department. Since three separate state agencies will oversee different aspects of cannabis production, distribution and sale, setting up the shared infrastructure is no small task.
Number two on the list of no small tasks is bringing the many different interests and stakeholders to the table for what promises to be the thorny process of drafting regulations to implement the Medical Marijuana Regulation and Safety Act. That legislation created 17 different types of licenses for cannabis businesses, as well as rules about the size of grow operations, vertical integration, deliveries and testing.
Ajax has been traveling the state and hosting public “pre-regulatory meetings” to get input from the industry and the public on how all this will be implemented. She has sensed some trepidation among the industry but also excitement about finally being legitimized.
“They’ve been doing it for the last 20 years without much regulation, and some at the local level. They’re concerned about us over-regulating them. They’re concerned about how our licensing fees will be. They want to make sure they’re not getting taxed too high,” she said.
“At the same time, there’s a real positive response. They’re looking forward to it. They want to make sure they’re being heard.”
Another group she’s been listening to intently is local officials and law enforcement, who have been the sole regulators of an industry the federal government still considers illegal.
She assures them that under the Act’s dual licensing scheme—one from the local government, one from the stat— local rules will remain in force, even when they are stricter than state regulations.
The laborious process of drawing up the regulations will take place over the course of 2017. Until then, all businesses operating under local licenses may proceed with business as usual.
And what does Ajax think about the fact that if the voters approve recreational cannabis, it will vastly change her and the Bureau’s responsibilities?
One job at a time, she said.
“We’ll just wait and see what happens and what the voters decide,” she said. “It does expand the scope of the Bureau. At the same time, our priorities are still there with both medicinal and recreational, with the eye of making sure we have safe cannabis, that we preserve public safety.”
For her part, Ajax has said publicly many times that she’s never tried cannabis. Combined with the fact that she is a Republican, a party not known to be friendly to cannabis, should the industry be concerned?
“I don’t think it should have any bearing. I think there are plenty of regulated industries, from alcohol to pharmaceuticals, where people don’t necessary use the product to regulate it. My job is to keep an open mind on everything and be flexible and listen to people and do my job.”
So is she excited or nervous about the major changes coming to California and the big job ahead of her?
“I’m probably a little bit of both. I’m excited and at the same time, I keep telling myself, ‘One day at a time.’ When you think too far ahead it gets a little overwhelming, but of course I’m looking ahead and we have our own the goals but at the same time it’s one day at a time and I’m confident we’ll get it done.”
“Being nervous is not a bad thing.”