Chief Of California's Bureau Of Cannabis Control Is 'Really, Really Busy'
Editor's note: This conversation has been edited for brevity.California's Bureau of Cannabis Control is a new agency created by Proposition 64, the measure voters in the state passed in 2016 to legalize recreational marijuana. The agency is tasked with regulating cannabis retailers, distributors, microbusinesses and testing facilities.
The agency's chief, Lori Ajax, was in San Diego recently for a meeting of the state's Cannabis Advisory Committee. KPBS spoke with Ajax about the state of legalization in California.
Q. So it's been a little over seven months now since legal recreational cannabis sales have started in California. How is it going?
A: It's going fairly well. It's been really, really busy. I think we didn't realize how much — there was so much work just getting to Jan. 1, 2018, and then once we got there we sort of said, "Ah, we made it." But then it's just been a lot of work, just looking at all the different things that we still have to do getting our final regulations in place. But it has been very interesting the last seven months, and we've learned a lot.
Q: We hear a lot that there's still a thriving black market in California of cannabis. What is your agency doing to enforce the laws and make sure that things are happening in the legal market?
A: Well, in the legal market we're issuing licenses. We're issuing temporary licenses right now, we're starting to get ready to issue the annual licenses. And we're going out and visiting the premises, doing premises inspections, seeing how they're operating. We're also getting a lot of valuable information from our licensees who are telling us about folks that are unlicensed operators. We're also working with the locals, because they see a lot of the unlicensed operators and we are taking their complaints, we're investigating those complaints and really trying to work together with the local market to minimize that black market.
Q: Your agency recently came out with a new set of (proposed) regulations for cannabis retailers, distributors, testing facilities — what are some of the most important bullet points in those regulations, and how are they going to impact the consumer?
A: I think one of the biggest things is just that cannabis is tested. Our transition period ended on July 1, and now all cannabis has to be tested. So the consumer can really be confident that when they go to a licensed retail store, they're getting safe cannabis that has been tested.
Q: You mentioned that all cannabis in the legal retail stores now has to be tested for safety and potency. Are there enough licensed testing facilities to handle all the product that's on the legal market?
A: Well, we have 31 right now for all of California, and we're hoping to have a few more very soon as we see more cities and counties start to develop their ordinances because we can't issue a license unless a city or county approves. And we are in contact with those laboratories every day, and for the most part, they are keeping up with demand. But they're of course very busy trying to get that cannabis tested and through to retail.
Q: A lot of cities in California, including some in San Diego County, have decided to ban all commercial cannabis activities. So there's kind of a patchwork of regulations and rules across the entire state. How is that affecting your agency's ability to regulate this newly legal market?
A: It is a challenge because we can't issue a license unless a city or county approves. So it means a lot of communications with the different cities and counties and making sure we're not issuing licenses where we shouldn't. But (we're) also working with them to educate them and let them know what we're doing, where we are in the process. I do think there's a lot of cities and counties right now that are looking at how they can either get an ordinance that's going to work for their community. But a big part of Prop. 64 was local control, allowing the cities and counties to determine what's best for them when it comes to commercial cannabis. So we're just going to continue working with them. And hopefully, by the end of this year, we're going to see more of them on board because we certainly want to issue licenses where it's appropriate in the local jurisdiction.
Q: On that issue of local control, one change that your agency is proposing is to allow licensed retailers to make deliveries of cannabis anywhere in the state, even if in that jurisdiction it's technically not allowed. What's the reason for that change, and what kind of response are you getting?
A: That is something we've been saying from the beginning, that if we issue a retail license that allows for delivery, that delivery could occur anywhere in the state. So what you're seeing in our proposed regulations is us just clarifying what we've already been saying. So again, they're proposed regulations. We're looking to the public feedback. That doesn't mean it's going to stay exactly the way it's written right now. So we're looking forward to hearing what people say about it.