10 Women to Watch: Lori Ajax

California regulator might just have the biggest job in the industry

For Marijuana Venture’s fifth annual issue highlighting women in the industry, we look at 10 leaders who will help shape the industry’s North American landscape over the next 12 months.

From marketing professionals and CBD producers to government regulators and community leaders, we are honored to be able to tell their stories.

As the top regulator in the world’s largest legal cannabis market, California Bureau of Cannabis Control Chief Lori Ajax has a lot on her plate. She oversees a department of 87 people that handles the licensing, enforcement and administration of the Golden State’s nearly 2-year-old recreational cannabis program, but she has not lost her sense of humor.

“Day-to-day life is busy,” she says with a laugh, adding, “As much work as this job is, it’s been an absolutely incredible experience.”

Originally from Sacramento, Ajax spent 22 years as an investigator with California’s Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control before becoming the state’s first “Pot Czar” in early 2016. A criminal justice major at California State University, Sacramento, Ajax says she always wanted to go into law enforcement and “worked my way up through the ranks” of the ABC before taking on her new role in cannabis.

Both products are highly regulated, and the two departments have similar goals of keeping the product out of the hands of children and advocating for responsible use, but Ajax admits the learning curve has been steep.

“I was quite naïve when I came over from Alcohol,” she says. “They’re really very different products and very different when it comes to regulation.”

She also says while her experience with alcohol helped, the federal illegality of cannabis means there are no guidelines or assistance at that level of government, complicating matters for people in positions like hers.

“All of the responsibility of regulating that product is on the state,” she says.

She also notes that unlike the ABC, which regulates beer, wine and spirits, the cannabis industry is constantly changing and innovating beyond the traditional flower or edible.

“When you come to cannabis there are so many different products and how they’re consumed. It can get very complicated,” she says. “That can make it tough.”

Now in its second year of overseeing a legal marketplace, Ajax says her department’s focus has shifted some. Instead of concentrating on education and helping businesses work their way through the complicated web of rules that govern licensing, 2019 has been marked more by an increase in enforcement, particularly against unlicensed cannabis retailers that continue to operate throughout the state.

Another challenge of Ajax’s job has been explaining or enforcing things that are out of her control, like the state’s tax structure or licensing laws. She says it was also a challenge to try to regulate a market that had been mostly unregulated since passage of the state’s medical marijuana laws in the late 1990s.

On the flip side, she says she has been surprised by the willingness of members of a very recently underground industry to work with the state.

“You would think that they wouldn’t want to tell you their business, that they would want to keep away from the regulator, but the exact opposite happened here in California,” Ajax says. “I don’t know that I expected that in the beginning.”

As she looks forward to 2020, Ajax says the Bureau of Cannabis Control will continue to grow and continue to work on enforcement, such as closing unlicensed shops and educating the consumer about the benefits of buying from legal stores. The bureau recently launched a new website, CAPotcheck.com, to allow consumers to search for licensed retailers.

“One of the big things is trying to convince consumers why it’s important to shop at the legal markets. You’re going to get cannabis that’s been tested, you know they’re licensed, you know it’s been tested and really trying to get Californians to think about where they are buying their cannabis and the benefits of going to legal operators,” she says.

So what’s her advice for someone looking to break into the cannabis business?

“If you’re looking to work for the BCC, we’re hiring,” she says with a laugh.

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