Lori Ajax is the first chief of California's Bureau of Medical Marijuana Regulation. (Courtesy of the California Department of Consumer Affairs)

Getting to know Lori Ajax, California’s most powerful marijuana regulator

Lori Ajax, the chief of California's new Bureau of Medical Marijuana Regulation, says 'There is no room for failure here'

SANTA ANA, Calif. — For those who celebrate April 20 as “weed day,” and those who don’t, here’s a prediction to consider:

The newly appointed chief of the Bureau of Medical Marijuana Regulation predicts licensed pot businesses soon might rival or even outnumber sanctioned booze businesses in California.

“I do think we’re going to have a big licensing population here in California as it relates to cannabis,” Lori Ajax said.

There were 88,490 active alcohol licenses last year. That indicates Ajax – a.k.a. “the pot czar” – will have a big task before her and a lot of eyes on her, with California already estimated to account for half of the nation’s marijuana industry.

“No pressure, right?” said a laughing Ajax.

Both her position and her bureau were created in October when Gov. Jerry Brown signed the Medical Marijuana Regulation and Safety Act into law.

The new regulations are an attempt to rein in an industry that’s operated largely in the shadows in the 20 years since Californians voted to legalize medical marijuana. That’s led to a mishmash of pot laws aimed at supporting legal use for patients while still attempting to stamp out recreational use and abuse.

“I think there’s a lot of ambiguity right now,” Ajax said. “My vision is that we put together a strong regulatory structure where medical marijuana patients can get access to safe medicine and that Californians can be proud of.”

As if that’s not a daunting enough task, Ajax’s mandate (and the number of pot licenses) might expand dramatically if Californians approve the recreational use of cannabis at the ballot box in November.

Either way, her bureau won’t be doing it alone. The Department of Food and Agriculture will monitor cultivation and the Department of Public Health will supervise manufacturing and testing of cannabis products. Ajax’s bureau – which is under the Department of Consumer Affairs – will regulate transportation, distribution and sales.

But with 17 different licenses to establish, some leaders in California’s nearly $3 billion medical marijuana industry have quietly voiced concerns that clear rules might not be in place in time to start issuing permits by the target deadline of Jan. 1, 2018.

Ajax has no such doubts.

“There is no room for failure here. It’s going to happen.”

FROM ABC TO 420

Ajax started at Sacramento State as a history major. It only took one criminal justice class to change her path, which led to a 21-year career with the Department of Alcohol and Beverage Control.

“You can make a difference in a community by regulating alcohol and making sure people are doing what they’re supposed to be doing, and keeping alcohol out of the hands of kids,” she said. “I really liked that mission.”

The Sacramento-area Republican rose through the ranks at the ABC, serving since January 2014 as the agency’s chief deputy director.

Brown appointed Ajax chief of the Bureau of Medical Marijuana Regulation on Feb. 3, beating out stiff competition to take over the potentially powerful new state agency. She was sworn in three weeks later.

Ajax, who doesn’t use cannabis, previously had little knowledge of California’s medical marijuana scene. But she found the idea of building a regulatory agency from the ground up “fascinating.”

“I think that it was maybe a good thing that I came into this not knowing a lot about the cannabis industry,” she said. “I didn’t come in with any preconceived notions.”

To get to know the community, she’s launching a series of meetings across the state, with one in the works for Orange County sometime in May.

“Ms. Ajax appears to seriously engaged in working with stakeholders and the industry to make MMRSA a success,” said Aaron Herzberg, who runs CalCann Holdings, a Costa Mesa company that invests in everything from real estate for marijuana cultivation to dispensaries.

Herzberg heard Ajax during her first public address at the California Cannabis Industry Association’s conference last month in Sacramento. He said he was encouraged by her effort to understand industry needs, and her commitment to hit that Jan. 1, 2018 deadline.

“If she manages to pull off that ambitious goal it would be an amazing accomplishment,” he said.

BUILDING THE BUREAU

For her first month on the job, Ajax was the bureau’s only employee.

Brown recently appointed An-Chi Tsou, a State Assembly Committee policy consultant who helped draft the marijuana bill, to be the bureau’s senior policy adviser. And the state is advertising now for an assistant chief.

The proposed budget for the coming fiscal year calls for 126 new government jobs tied to the new marijuana regulations, including 25 who will work in Ajax’s bureau.

The next challenge, she said, will be to fill out details of the new law, incorporating public input and getting a final draft of all regulations approved.

A key part of that effort involves sorting out the rules for enforcement of marijuana laws. Generally, Ajax expects the bureau to work much like other industries regulated by the Department of Consumer Affairs, with complaints triggering investigations.

The state also will train local law enforcement to understand the new regulations, and Ajax said the agency will work closely with police once the rules are firmly established.

Building the bureau is in some ways a moving target, with clean-up legislation and related bills pending that could shift direction a bit.

And more change could be in the works if voters redraw the cannabis rules yet again. The Adult Use of Marijuana Act, which is expected to qualify for the November ballot, calls for Ajax’s agency to oversee the recreational use of cannabis in addition to the drug’s medical uses.

Ajax insists she hasn’t yet pondered how her job will change if recreational use becomes legal. For the time being, Ajax remains focused on the challenges already in place.

“I want to be involved in just putting in a really strong, fair, consistent regulatory system that everyone can look at and say, ‘Look what California did.’”


About Lori Ajax, the new California pot czar

Lives in: Fair Oaks, a suburb of Sacramento

Age: 50

Education: Bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Cal State Sacramento

Early career: She spent 10 years in the private sector before joining the Department of Alcohol and Beverage Control as an investigator in Santa Rosa in 1995.

Recent career: As a district administrator from 2007 to 2011, she oversaw licensing and enforcement for 20 Northern California counties. She was made deputy division chief in 2011, overseeing several statewide programs. In January 2014, Gov. Jerry Brown appointed her Chief Deputy Director of ABC. On Feb. 3, Brown named her chief of the Bureau of Medical Marijuana Regulation.

Contact the writer: 714-796-7963 or bstaggs@ocregister.com

This story was first published on OCRegister.com