Medical marijuana regulation is taking effect in California, and with it comes Lori Ajax, the state’s new “weed czar.”
Ajax could soon become the deputy director of the new Bureau of Medical Marijuana Regulation thanks to rules signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown late last year. Surprisingly, she is a Republican.
Brown nominated Ajax for the job in February, though the state Senate must still approve her appointment. Both Brown and the majority of the state Legislature are Democrats, making it more likely she will be cleared by the Senate.
Ajax’s political background might trouble some activists, but most seem to be taking her appointment in stride. Her party affiliation could make her more palatable to people who live in conservative Northern California.
Previous role in liquor licensing
Ajax previously issued licenses for the liquor industry in 20 Northern California counties, including the Emerald Triangle – a region responsible for growing more than half the nation’s cannabis supply.
Assuming she wins appointment, Ajax, 50, would be responsible for building a new state bureau from scratch, an unusual opportunity. She would get to hire 40 to 50 staffers, with their salaries covered by money from the new licensing fees created by the medical marijuana regulations.
The position comes with a $150,000 salary and is unofficially known as the “chief BuMMR (an acronym for the new marijuana bureau). Ajax would build the bureau in Sacramento.
Ajax will build bureau from ground up
Most of the job would be routine bureaucracy, with tasks such as drafting specific rules and building information technology systems. And Ajax is known as an expert in administration.
She is also respected within the legal marijuana community, though advocates were measured in their support for her appointment. Her chief selling point is that she has a reputation and contacts in Northern California, an area known for both conservative voters and marijuana growers.
Steve DeAngelo, who owns the state’s largest dispensary in Oakland, said he was “cautiously optimistic” about the nomination. Ajax visited his Harborside Health Center in 2014, a move DeAngelo said impressed him.
“For me, that’s reassuring because it showed me that she has an interest in learning about the industry,” he said. “And she’s a woman, which is great, because the cannabis industry needs some more diversity.”
An objective perspective
Cannabis proponents also praised her objectivity and lack of ties to the industry.
“Lori comes to us as a relative unknown, which is a good thing from our perspective,” said Hezekiah Allen, head of the California Growers Association. “She is a very skilled bureaucrat. And she doesn’t have a horse in the race as far as how this comes out. Somebody from L.A. could have a hard time understanding what it looks like in the northern counties.”
Ajax’s political leanings could actually help her, said Sean Donohoe, an industry consultant with experience in Sacramento and in political campaigns on non-cannabis issues.
“There might be greater confidence in some of the rural counties in a Republican czar,” Donahoe said.
Ajax was appointed chief deputy director of the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control in 2014. She had already worked in the department for 19 years prior to her nomination.