The California Bureau of Medical Cannabis Regulation has held a few meetings across the state, seeking public comment on the new regulations they'll be devising and enforcing. The Mendocino Voice had a sit down interview with Lori Ajax, Chief of the California Bureau of Medical Cannabis Regulation.
The following is lightly edited for brevity.
TMV: With the past two meetings in mind, are there any commonalities?
AJAX: There are key things that are coming out — like small businesses concerned about big business coming in. I think a lot of people are concerned when it comes to rehabilitation for criminal conviction, how the licensing authorities are going to view that, so that’s one of the topics today.
So I think what’s been really exciting...is really how eager people are to be here, and positive. When you look around, you really just see people that are happy to talk about it, they want to give their input, and I think makes all of us excited.
You know, you plan these things, and you’re not really sure how they’re going to turn out, and then you see, ‘oh good, they are getting involved.’
TMV: Are there challenges in bringing together different viewpoints?
AJAX: We’re representing the five license types, so of course, everybody has their opinion...But I think, from what I’ve seen because I’ve sitting in on the groups, is that they don’t always have a chance to interact with each other and hear everybody’s different ideas and concepts.
I think that’s really been not as much of a challenge as we maybe we expected it to be, because I think people are willing to hear everybody else’s perspective.
TMV: What are some issues that people are raising with the existing law, the Medical Cannabis Regulation and Safety Act?
AJAX: I think the distributorship model has been an issue for some folks, and you’ve heard us say a couple times that we’re not here to change statute, we’re not able to do that.
I think there are always certain parts of the law that people aren’t happy with, but I think if we can get the more information out there and really tell them that this is your chance to develop the regulations, even if you don’t like parts of the law, maybe we can develop those regulations to still make sure that you can still run your businesses.
TMV: Your background is in the alcohol distribution sector, are there lessons from that industry for the cannabis industry?
AJAX: Well, they’re really different distributorship models, and for one thing alcohol is recreational product, it’s not medicinal...I think it’s getting people to understand that in this distributorship model, the distributor is more like quality control — they’re the ones that send the cannabis sample to the testing lab and ensure that it passes...
TMV: Has anything surprised you about transitioning from the alcohol to cannabis industry?
AJAX: [laughs] Yes, definitely. They’re different products, but there’s some similarity in that they’re both highly regulated. Sometimes I wonder if this is what it was like early on after prohibition in alcohol...But I actually have been pleasantly surprised about how open the industry has been to me, especially coming from an alcohol background and not a cannabis background, and the willingness to share — we’ve been touring different dispensaries, and manufacturers, and testing labs, and how open they are to let the Bureau learn about cannabis. I thought there’d be a little bit more ‘Hey, you don’t know cannabis, what are you doing here.’
TMV: There are already a lot of existing businesses in the cannabis industry.
AJAX: There’s a lot of people coming out, you can tell these are people coming out and saying, ‘yes, we’re ready to get licensed,’ and they want to be part of making sure we go down the right road, I think.
TMV: For people who can’t make it out to these meetings, is there anything in particular you would like them to know?
AJAX: All the info in packets is on the website, they can read the worksheets to see the specific concepts that we’re suggesting be in our regulations. So if people want to fill out a written comment card and sending it, or call, or email us, I want to get that out.
TMV: So, for general licensing, the agency is looking at certain questions, like ownership and background checks?
AJAX: General licensing is a thing that’s kind of an overlap between all three departments — so we don’t want to people having to do one thing for Public Health, and one thing for Food and Ag — we want to not be duplicative, so we’re requiring the same things.
But when we get to actual talking about each separate license types, we’re going to be floating even more concepts at them. Those are specific to that license type, and those are the things that don’t overlap.
TMV: On the north coast, we have a lot of existing businesses, and people are really concerned about small businesses and big businesses and out of state money. How are you looking at finding that balance?
AJAX: We are hearing people all over who have those concerns, I know all three licensing authorities, we do have those concerns. I just had somebody come up to me, three generations in cultivation, and they’re worried because they’re not a big producer, they’re looking for that small cottage business. That’s where all three licensing authorities, that’s where we need to develop those regulations that make sure we’re not leaving them out. What they look like now, I don’t know, but we want them to know that we still want to hear from them. We don't want them sitting on the sidelines, we want to hear from them, and we’re trying to hear and in so many ways to reach them and hear from them.
TMV: You mentioned that you are looking for ways to work with people who may not have something in place with their local governments for the dual-licensing system?
AJAX: Yes..with the local jurisdictions. There’s a lot of coordination, we can’t say it enough. We’re doing a lot of outreach with the local governments and their associations to really keep them up to date on what they're doing, and get their feedback from them. Because a lot of them have been doing it, and it's good for us to know what’s worked and what hasn’t. We keep busy! There’s never a dull moment around here.
We have really great staff and the Department of Consumer Affairs helps us tremendously. I don't know if it’s keeping me young, but it’s aging me quick!
TMV: Can you talk about what’s been the best experience going on this pre-regulatory tour?
AJAX: It’s always fun to get out of the office sometimes, too! Interacting with people, meeting all sorts of people from different areas of the industry, the public, local government people, law enforcement….so I think it’s just meeting people, and hearing their concerns, and seeing how much this means to them. It’s really a very emotional thing for people, you can tell, like ‘this is my livelihood and this is what I do,’ you can tell it’s just not a job for them, they really care about what’s going to happen. So I think they like it because you know, we’ll sit down with them. I think people seeing us, roll up our sleeves and we’re all in there listening, because I’ll sit down with them in the groups, everybody, you know, all of our folks.
I think that’s been fun for our staff, I know for the Bureau’s staff, the things we’re learning, I know at our session in Redding, both me and the person in there, they’ll will tell us things we didn’t know about the industry where we’re like, ‘oh really? We didn’t know that.’ And they’ll just look at us sort of like, ‘really, you didn’t know that?’ and we’ll say, ‘but we know it now, so that’s good!” I think they like seeing us like, ‘hey, we’re teaching them something about what’s going on.’
TMV: I think that’s a huge moment for people who have done this for decades who maybe don’t ever talk about it, that the government wants to know about what they've been doing.
AJAX: We really do want to know, but it’s not a negative thing. We want to know, and seeing them open up and start talking about about how they’re really moving their product, not how we think they’re doing it. They’re telling us, so it’s been fun.
TMV: I heard in one of the smaller breakout groups in Sacramento that there may be a plan for the testing labs, where there is a state-run testing lab overseeing one, is there a plan for testing labs?
AJAX: That hasn’t been decided yet, testing labs just came over to us in July. For right now we’re working with Public Health on assisting us with developing those regulations, until we can get some expertise on the Bureau staff. So no, that has not been decided yet…
Right now we’re going to be responsible for licensing testing labs, but how that’s going to work—as to if we need to do our own testing—we’re going to be coordinating with the Department of Public Health…I don’t have a laboratory in my backroom!