Lori Ajax, chief of the state’s Cannabis Control Bureau, addresses a room packed with aspiring cannabis business owners on Friday in Riverside. (Brooke Edwards Staggs, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Want to start a cannabis business in California? Tips from a recent workshop

An hour after the start of Friday’s workshop on how to get a state license to run a cannabis business, some 200 people were still queued up in the parking lot of the Riverside County Administrative Offices trying to get inside.

County staff scrambled to set up portable speakers so the crowd on the sidewalk could hear the presentation from California’s “pot czar” Lori Ajax and other cannabis industry regulators. Meanwhile, county spokesman Ray Smith walked the line with a bullhorn, telling would-be business folk who’d driven from as far as the Central Valley that the session would be repeated three times and everyone would get a chance to squeeze into the 330-seat boardroom.

“If we knew that we’d have this many people, we would have rented the convention center,” Riverside County Supervisor Kevin Jeffries said.

Safe to say, interest in getting a piece of California’s emerging legal cannabis industry is high.

California marijuana industry business workshop
A long line of people snaked around Riverside County offices and into the parking lot Friday, as attendees tried to get into a workshop on how to get a license to run a cannabis business in California. (Brooke Edwards Staggs, Orange County Register/SCNG)

State regulators plan to start issuing temporary licenses Jan. 1 for anyone who wants to grow, manufacture, distribute, test or sell cannabis products in California. That applies to the medical side of the market, which has operated largely without regulations since voters legalized cannabis as medicine in 1996. And it applies to the recreational side of the market, which last year was legalized for all adults 21 and older through Proposition 64.

As the Jan. 1 deadline looms, and the state rules are only now coming into focus, questions are swirling over how that licensing program will work. That’s why the state’s Cannabis Control Bureau organized three workshops to lay out the basic plan for aspiring applicants.

Some attendees at Friday’s workshop in Riverside tried to attend the first session, on Thursday in Los Angeles, but they’d been turned away when the crowd swelled above 1,000 people. The third session is slated for Tuesday, Oct. 17, in Sacramento.

Fullerton attorney John Bussman said most of the questions he’s getting are from people interested in growing rather than selling or making cannabis products. And, noting that the regulations are changing rapidly, he admitted he needs to know more himself.

“My clients are asking me these questions every day, and I don’t have good answers.”

But even before Bussman was able to get into the main presentation Friday, he said he’d picked up some useful information from state workers passing out fliers and answering questions in the lobby.

Ajax — whose bureau will oversee cannabis retailers, distributors and testers — acknowledged that state regulators can’t answer every question yet.

Her team — along with the Department of Food and Agriculture, which will oversee cultivators, and the Department of Public Health, which will license manufacturers — spent months creating draft regulations for the medical marijuana industry. Then they held hearings around the state to get feedback on the plan. But that work largely was scrapped this summer after legislators passed Senate Bill 94, which overrode the draft rules while merging medical and recreational cannabis laws.

Now regulators are adjusting new draft regulations to incorporate stakeholder feedback and comply with the budget trailer bill. They have to wait until an environmental impact report on the state’s cannabis program is certified, which should happen in early November. After that, probably in mid-November, they’ll release updated rules for medical and recreational businesses.

Until then, Asif Maan, who will oversee businesses that make cannabis concentrates and edibles as chief of the health department’s Office of Manufactured Cannabis Safety, said Friday that the draft rules are still a good resource for companies that want to be in compliance as quickly as possible, noting that many of the draft rules will shape the final regulations.

By December, the three state agencies plan to start accepting applications for temporary business licenses. Those licenses will be good for four months, giving applicants time to compile everything they’ll need to seek full licenses and giving regulators time to verify that information.

The question of what should be on that checklist is what brought Russell Kochis to Riverside from San Diego on Friday.

Kochis said his dispensary, A Green Alternative, was among the first to get a conditional use permit from the city of San Diego. Now, he believes he’s in a good position to get a state license to sell both medical and recreational cannabis come Jan. 1.

Kochis praised the job that regulators have done so far. And despite the long waits, most people in Riverside Friday agreed.

“I understand that there is a lot of interest,” said Lisa Sosa, who only had to drive a few minutes to attend the meeting.

Sosa hopes to open a dispensary in her hometown of Riverside. Though the city doesn’t allow shops at the moment, she’s optimistic that it will one day soon and, when that happens, she wants to be ready.

Lori Ajax, California cannabis czar
An attendee at a marijuana licensing workshop poses with Lori Ajax, chief of the state’s Cannabis Control Bureau, on Friday in Riverside. (Brooke Edwards Staggs, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Local approval is key, insisted Richard Parrott, who’s overseeing cultivation licenses as head of the agriculture department’s CalCannabis division. Without permission from the local city or county to do business, the state won’t issue a license.

During the workshop, Riverside County officials discussed their efforts to permit marijuana businesses in unincorporated areas.

In August, county supervisors directed staff to start crafting rules for the industry. Jeff Greene, chief of staff for Jeffries, said supervisors continue to get public input, and a new information portal launched Friday morning. They hope to have draft rules out in early 2018, he said, and take a plan before the Board of Supervisors next summer.

“There will be opposition,” Green said. “I’ll just say, not all of our board is convinced.”

If the board approves the plan, it’ll be on the November 2018 ballot. And if residents vote to tax and regulate marijuana businesses, the county could issue permits by next fall.

Seven cities in Riverside County now permit some form of cannabis business. A handful of cities in San Bernardino County do, while just two cities in Orange County have welcomed the industry. And Los Angeles is neck-deep in the process of trying to rein in and regulate its massive marijuana market, said to be the world’s largest.

This story was first published on TheCannifornian.com