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Greeting the Pot Czarina



A line of more than 100 eager attendees snaked out of the entrance to Arcata's D Street Neighborhood Center to meet the chief of California's newly formed Bureau of Medical Marijuana Regulation.

The czarina, Lori Ajax, started the meeting, explaining to a mostly jovial crowd that the bureau was in its infancy. "I started with the bureau on Feb. 24," she said. "It's the strangest thing when you start at a place and you're the only person."

The bureau's biggest priority at the moment is hiring, she said, before introducing Assistant Chief Counsel Tamara Colson — appointed by the Governor a week before — and An-Chi Tsou, a senior policy advisor who had worked closely with drafters of the medical marijuana act that passed last year and created the bureau.

Tsou led most of the meeting, and made clear early on that it was a "listening tour;" they were in Humboldt to hear local concerns.

Most of the details of the regulations will be worked out over the next year and a half before the bureau begins to enforce new laws in 2018. That point was lost on several speakers who approached to ask specific questions. Tsou assured them answers were coming, and that their voices were needed while regulations were drafted.

Others complained about details of the legislation, like the separation of cultivation and distribution licenses. "Distribution never has been a problem," said one apparent grower to roars from the crowd.

Tsou patiently explained that the legislation — drafted and passed last year — was in the hands of the legislators. The bureau's responsibility is to take the framework of the law and create the specific regulations it calls for. Changing who can hold what license types is out of the bureau's jurisdiction.

Other speakers called for anti-monopoly measures to be considered, asked the bureau to allow people with drug felony convictions to participate in the industry and expressed concerns about growers being willing to come out of the shadows. Tsou asked for suggestions about how to encourage people not only to come into compliance when regulations are set, but to engage in the drafting process. She received little direction except for concerns about the costs of doing business in a regulated market.

Several people spoke about the importance of protecting medical marijuana patients — ostensibly the entire point of California's existing marijuana industry — including Americans for Safe Access Director Kristin Nevedal, who said she wanted strong standards for quality controls between the multiple licensed businesses that will see marijuana from seed to its medical users. Others feared a continued black market would mean patients would continue to receive untested and potentially dangerous products.

But the overwhelming attitude at the meeting wasn't about patients. It was about protecting Humboldt County growers' business interests. A partner from Hummingbird Healing Center said there was a "real opportunity to help people in this room — legacy farmers." The increased costs of doing business in a regulated industry would be oppressive, he said, and drive farmers out of business. "We really need for you to look out for us."

Another said growers were spending a lot of money to become limited liability corporations and to come into compliance with moving regulatory targets, and asked for some guidance to prepare themselves for 2018. Tsou responded they should be engaged in the drafting process.

After Tsou ended public comment and thanked people for coming to the meeting, one man shouted angrily from the crowd. Tsou, Ajax and the rest of the bureau needed to "do the math," he said. They needed to protect the growers or face, he said, the "collapse of an entire industry."

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