Twenty years after California legalized medical marijuana, the state is taking its first major steps toward officially regulating the multibillion-dollar industry. Its new chief pot regulator is reaching out to the medical marijuana community this month, and she gave her first major interview Thursday, saying she believes “there is a medical need” for marijuana — an attitude not always held by officials in the Golden State.
Lori Ajax, who was named in February to head up the Bureau of Medical Marijuana Regulation, said this week she plans to solicit feedback from the state’s marijuana business community before putting in place any new regulations.
“We are scheduling stakeholder meetings towards the end of this month and in May to go to different areas of the state just to introduce ourselves to people. There will be lots of chances to listen to the industry, listen to the public — whoever wants to attend,” Ajax told the Los Angeles Times Thursday. “And then we are going to get into stakeholder meetings that are more focused on regulation drafting. It’s going to be daunting.”
When Gov. Jerry Brown signed the Medical Marijuana Regulation and Safety Act last October, it ushered in three bills that created the Bureau of Medical Marijuana Regulation and a structure for the department to oversee California’s medical marijuana industry, SFGate reported at the time. The laws won’t go into effect until 2018, but officials are getting their office up and running now to begin moving toward full regulation.
The Medical Marijuana Regulation and Safety Act also created licensing regulations, cracked down on clinics giving pot to those without legitimate health concerns and established environmental guidelines for medical pot growers, including how they discharge water, chemicals and sediment into the ground.
Medical marijuana advocates in California have wanted more regulations for their industry for some time. Since the state legalized medical weed in 1996, growers and sellers have operated in a kind of semi-legitimate fashion without much oversight. Marijuana is still illegal at the federal level, and the lack of regulations in California has meant different jurisdictions treated the substance very differently, which has sometimes led to confusion and varying standards.
Now that Ajax is in charge of developing regulations for the state, marijuana advocates have been vocal about wanting to ensure the marijuana that is sold stays safe and the new rules help small businesses transition to regulation. Though the Bureau of Medical Marijuana Regulation has time to develop its standards, Ajax said she wants to get started as soon as possible.
“I have on my whiteboard ‘633 days.’ It’s a good reminder how it’s actually a short period of time,” Ajax told the Los Angeles Times. “Last week, I doubled my staff. I have another person that started and we are hiring. In order to get this done, we have to have people. From there we are doing some stakeholder engagement.”
Ajax previously served as the deputy chief of the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC), the department medical marijuana advocates did not want to oversee their industry. Although she comes from ABC, those in the medical marijuana community seemed pleased when Brown announced Ajax’s appointment in February.
“It’s not ABC taking over. It’s someone with experience taking over,” Lanette Davies, director of Canna Care in Sacramento, told the Sacramento Bee in February. “This is a policymaker. I expect to see a bunch of policies. ... I just don’t want my medicine being treated like alcohol.”
When the Los Angeles Times asked Ajax if she had personally used marijuana, she said no. But that doesn’t mean she’s against it. The new chief said she believes there is a need for medical marijuana and plans to work with both the federal officials and local governments to ensure California’s regulations make sense.
“Unlike regulating alcohol, I’m not a user of marijuana so I am not familiar with how that affects people or what it does. But from the outreach I’ve done since I got here, it appears there is a medical need and I’m tasked with doing this and I’m going to do it,” Ajax said. “At the end of the day, my opinion shouldn’t matter. This is what was passed into law and I’m going to get this done by Jan. 1, 2018.”