Weed czar: ‘Things will improve’

California’s Cannabis Control chief says state will overcome early growing pains

Reporter Brad Branan sits with Lori Ajax, the state’s Bureau of Cannabis Control chief.

Reporter Brad Branan sits with Lori Ajax, the state’s Bureau of Cannabis Control chief.

photo by nicole fowler

A Republican who says she has never gotten high, Lori Ajax might seem like an odd choice to oversee California’s effort to make weed legal. But hard work and dedication to public service have earned praise for the state’s cannabis czar, even from people who are otherwise critical of California’s regulatory scheme.

“I care, and maybe to a fault, about making this work,” Ajax said during a recent interview with SN&R. “I’m cautiously optimistic it will work. We knew this wasn’t going to be easy.”

Ajax spoke during an interview at the Midtown Philz Coffee, right after a meeting with dispensary owner Phil Blurton, and before heading to the airport to fly to Los Angeles for more meetings. Such has been the pace since Ajax became the state’s chief of the Bureau of Cannabis Control in 2016. She heads an agency with 65 employees, after previously working in the state’s alcohol regulatory agency.

Ajax spoke about lower-than-expected cannabis sales, testing requirements and other issues. She acknowledged that those issues have created doubt about the viability of legal cannabis, but added that she thinks the state will overcome them. Her comments have been edited for clarity and brevity.

In the first three months of this year—the first quarter of legal weed sales in California—revenues were far below what the state expected. Why do you think this is happening?

It’s still early in the process. We have a lot of cities and counties without ordinances that would allow retail sales.

What about sales from unlicensed retailers? Aren’t they making a big dent in legal sales?

Yes. We’ve had a black market for a very long time in California. Eighty-five percent of the complaints we receive are about unlicensed activity. We started out by sending letters, educating people about the need for licenses. Now we are into the next phase. We have forwarded more than 200 cases for criminal investigation to the Department of Consumer Affairs [the bureau’s parent agency] investigative unit.

What about Weedmaps.com? Are they still allowing advertising of unlicensed retailers?

Yes. The investigation of Weedmaps continues.

Starting July 1, all retail weed must be tested by a certified lab for pesticides, mold and other things. How have retailers responded?

We’ve heard of a lot of places that are dramatically lowering prices to get rid of untested product. Otherwise, they have to destroy the cannabis.

California has 29 licensed testing facilities, most of them clustered in the Bay Area and Southern California. Is that enough to meet demand and keep tested product on the shelves?

I would like to see more than 29. I am more concerned about the lack of distribution of facilities across the state.

Cannabis industry officials are concerned about testing, taxes, regulations and a host of other things. You seem a little more optimistic. Why?

I think things will improve. The system has been running for five-and-a-half months. We are going to improve. We’ve still got a lot of work to do. Things will become more settled when we approve final regulations later this year. More cities and counties will start to allow sales. The sunset provision for medical collectives will end in January, and that will help clear up some of the unlicensed activity.

Is it true that you’ve never smoked weed?

Yes. You have to understand that I worked in law enforcement in my last job and we couldn’t consume cannabis. One other thing—I am a square.