Lori Ajax has two years to set up California's first system to license, regulate and tax medical marijuana. Gov. Jerry Brown recently appointed the Republican to become the first chief of the Bureau of Medical Marijuana Regulation.
Ajax, 51, was previously chief deputy director at the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, where she worked in various positions since 1995. In her new role, she faces a moving target: California voters are likely to vote on an initiative in November that would legalize recreational use of marijuana.
The measure includes a provision that would transform Ajax's office into a Bureau of Marijuana Control that would also be responsible for regulating non-medical cannabis, significantly expanding Ajax's responsibilities. Ajax's office has been loaned $10 million by the state to set up a 25-person bureau that can begin issuing licenses on Jan. 1, 2018.
Ajax sat down Thursday for an interview at her Sacramento office.
What about your background has prepared you to oversee the regulation of medical marijuana?
Twenty-one years at the Alcoholic Beverage Control [Department], starting out early on as an agent and then working my way through the ranks. So I dealt with licensing structures and alcohol licenses and enforcement of those licenses in my various positions. And alcohol is a highly regulated product, so I think it is beneficial in setting up this structure for medical cannabis. I think it's going to be helpful. I also had a lot of stakeholder involvement with the public and prevention groups and the industry and law enforcement.
Did you vote in favor of Proposition 215, the measure legalizing medical marijuana, and why?
I don't remember, to be quite honest with you. That was a long time ago.
Is there a legitimate reason for people to get medical marijuana?
Yes, I do think there is. 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. 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.
You have never used marijuana?
No. I'm not a marijuana user.
Do you have a position on the initiative proposed for the November ballot that would allow recreational use of marijuana?
No. Right now I have enough on my plate just dealing with medical marijuana. Of course we have an eye on that ball. I'm of the mind that whether or not that happens, we will deal with that then, and the bureau needs to be nimble enough that we may have to change directions.
What do you need to accomplish between now and 2018 so that the state can begin licensing medical marijuana operations?
A lot. I have on my whiteboard "633 days." It's a good reminder how it's actually a short period of time. 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. 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. And then we are going to get into stakeholder meetings that are more focused on regulation drafting. It's going to be daunting.
How will you draft the regulations?
Instead of us coming out and drafting it, I think we want to get feedback first, draft it, and then put it out for comment. I think that might be a more efficient way to handle it.
There has been talk that some people are gaming the system, getting medical marijuana cards without having real medical conditions. Do you think that there are some people out there who don't deserve these cards, and the state should do more to make sure that they are going to people who actually have medical issues?
I don't have enough information at this point to tell you whether I think that is happening. I think over the course of the next couple of years that is something we are going to have to look at.
Do you know anybody among your relatives and friends who has needed medical marijuana?
I do not. I have heard stories, of course. And through my meetings I've set up with industry groups and with legislators, I've heard stories of how it has helped folks with cancer.
How do you keep those convicted of serious felonies who were illegal drug dealers from infiltrating the system of growers and sellers?
That's going to be through our licensing process. We are going to have to do a background, a fingerprint check and then you evaluate the seriousness of the crime at that point.
The federal government still considers marijuana sales and possession a crime. Does it concern you that you are going to regulate something the federal government doesn't recognize?
I have been tasked with a job to do at the state level and I understand, yes, that there are some concerns at the federal level. But I feel as long as we put in some strong, comprehensive, clear regulations I think we can assure the federal government that we do have a framework in place that will alleviate their concerns. When it comes to regulation, I really feel like if you can minimize the confusion for folks and you just have clear, strong, comprehensive regulations, that's going to go a long way with the federal government, but of course nobody can predict things.
You face a challenge in operating with state regulations when many cities and counties will have their own, stricter rules. Do you hope the local officials defer to the state rules?
No. The law calls for dual licensing. The locals know best what they want in their cities and counties so I think it is a partnership between us and the locals. I feel it's really important for me and the bureau; we need to make sure we stay engaged with the cities and counties. I think it is a good thing, the dual licensing.
Gov. Brown recently said, "The world's pretty dangerous, very competitive. I think we need to stay alert, if not 24 hours a day — more than some of the potheads might be able to put together." Do you have concerns about health risks associated with long-term use of marijuana?
I think a lot of people are concerned about the lack of research on what the effects are of marijuana. I don't have an opinion on that other than I think we need to have more research and it's good that it's going to be conducted by the University of San Diego.
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