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Meet the Woman Serving as California's First Marijuana Czar

By 2018, Lori Ajax has to set the standards for California's massive medical cannabis industry. We caught up with her to find out how she plans on doing so.
April 20, 2016, 3:35pm
Image via Stocksy / Kurt Heim

I first interviewed for my medical marijuana "recommendation" in 2007 with a doctor in San Francisco. It cost me about $150 in cash. His office was on the fourth floor of a building in the Fillmore district; there was nothing in the interview room except for a folding table and a stack of papers. The doctor asked me a few questions about my "insomnia," and I walked away a medical marijuana patient.

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Since then, I've renewed my recommendation sporadically, most recently in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles. The questions that time included, "Are your parents really tall, too?" and "Where did you get your bag?" It took all of four minutes and cost $40. As licensed stoners in California know, your favorite dispensary could shut down at any moment, with little to no warning. (And once you've been to a few, it's not that tough to see why.) But the tide may be changing, and soon.

In February, California Governor Jerry Brown announced his appointment of seasoned bureaucrat Lori Ajax to head up the states brand new Bureau of Medical Marijuana Regulation at the California Department of Consumer Affairs. Or, as the LA Times quickly dubbed her, California's marijuana czar.

Ajax, 51, has been chief deputy director at the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control since 2014 and has served in various positions in that department since 1995. "Alcohol is a highly regulated product, so I think my tenure there is beneficial in setting up this structure for medical cannabis," she tells Broadly. "I think all that experience is going to be helpful to my current mission." And her mission is a big one: Ajax will be responsible for setting the standards for California's cannabis industry by 2018.

Her first order of business? Building the bureau from scratch. "There are currently no state regulations in place for medical cannabis—this is a brand-new entity," she says. "Although we will look at what has and hasn't worked in other states, California's medical cannabis market is very different from other states—and much larger. Our goal is to create a regulatory framework that works for California."

The Bureau of Medical Marijuana Regulation ("BMMR"— or just "Bummer") has a busy year ahead. "To get this done and be ready to accept license applications by January 1, 2018, we have to have people, so hiring is a priority along with stakeholder engagement," says Ajax. "Our goal is to get feedback first, then draft regulations, then put them out for comment."

For the next few months at least, BMMR will be focused primarily on industry outreach before transitioning to actually creating a regulatory system, which will include regulating, liscensing, and taxing medical marijuana. "We have public information sessions scheduled for later this month and into May, when we'll be going to different areas of the state, because people have been calling and requesting these meetings," she says. "After that, we'll get into more focused stakeholder meetings on specific regulations we'll be drafting, then reach out for feedback again. That's really the next phase—getting regulations drafted and getting into that process."

As it stands, California's medical marijuana market is largely regulated differently from county to county and city to city. But based on the size of the state, talking to each city and county individually is unrealistic. "We have been meeting with city and county representatives and associations to get their input," says Ajax. "Although we probably won't get to all 480 cities and 58 counties, we've been reaching out to some of the most active medical cannabis markets, with a focus on local law enforcement outreach."

Ajax is also preparing for the possibility that recreational marijuana may be legalized in California this November, though she's not getting ahead of herself. "We certainly have our eye on that ball, but nobody can predict the future, and our charge now is developing regulations for medical marijuana only," she says. "As an entity, we realize we'll have to stay nimble to go that direction if it's required, but for now our focus is clear."