California Names Its 1st Medical Marijuana Chief

by | February 5, 2016

By Joe Garofoli

California has its first weed czar -- otherwise known as chief of its Bureau of Medical Marijuana Regulation -- and it's a Republican, Lori Ajax, who is now chief deputy director of the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.

The job -- which insiders have nicknamed the "chief BuMMR" (as in Bureau of Medical Marijuana Regulation) -- pays $150,636 a year. Gov. Jerry Brown's appointment Thursday of Ajax requires confirmation by the state Senate.

If Ajax, 50, is approved, she will get the rare opportunity in Sacramento to create a state agency. The marijuana czar will hire 40 to 50 people, whose salary would be paid for with the stream of new cannabis licensing fees created by California's recently passed medical marijuana law.

But much of the job will involve the routine of administration, such as creating information technology systems and crafting regulation policy.

Cannabis activists were guardedly optimistic about the choice Thursday, noting Ajax previously handled alcohol licensing for 20 northern California counties, giving her contacts with local officials in the part of the state where 60 percent of the nation's marijuana is produced.

Steve DeAngelo, owner of the Harborside Health Center in Oakland, which is California's largest medical cannabis dispensary, was "cautiously optimistic" Thursday. He was impressed that Ajax led a delegation to visit Harborside in April 2014.

"For me, that's reassuring because it showed me that she has an interest in learning about the industry," DeAngelo said. "And she's a woman, which is great, because the cannabis industry needs some more diversity."

Others in the business had asked Brown to appoint someone with no ties to the cannabis industry who would be able to navigate state bureaucracy.

"Lori comes to us as a relative unknown, which is a good thing from our perspective," said Hezekiah Allen, executive director of the California Growers Association.

"She is a very skilled bureaucrat," Allen said. "And she doesn't have a horse in the race as far as how this comes out" in terms of issuing cannabis-related licenses. "Somebody from L.A. could have a hard time understanding what it looks like in the northern counties."

Sean Donahoe, a top marijuana industry consultant who knows Sacramento and has worked on political campaigns unrelated to cannabis in California, said Ajax's Republican affiliation -- a rarity in marijuana circles -- might help her in this job.

"There might be greater confidence in some of the rural counties in a Republican czar," Donahoe said.

Ajax has been chief deputy director at the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control since she was appointed 2014. She had previously served in several positions in the department since 1995.

(c)2016 the San Francisco Chronicle