In October, backers of recreational marijuana legalization were ramping up their campaign ahead of the November election. They turned to a potent demographic in California politics: minorities, who compose a nearly two-thirds majority of the state's population.
The pitch by Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, U.S. Rep. Ted Lieu, Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer and members of the Drug Policy Alliance, was straightforward: For too long, people of color have been disproportionately arrested for small-time cannabis crimes; it's time we legalize it. Proposition 64 passed with overwhelming support and now allows those 21 and older to hold up to an ounce — and opens the doors of the burgeoning marijuana industry to minorities. "The spirit of the initiative is to right those wrongs," Newsom told L.A. Weekly at the pro-64 event at LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes downtown.
Today, investors are licking their chops over the prospect of a "green rush" when recreational retailers and weed makers are allowed to open for business Jan. 1. But critics wonder if the government officials now charged with rolling out regulations are hiding behind an expensive paywall that could inadvertently hinder access to the very people — minorities and other pot-business hopefuls — whom Proposition 64 was supposed to benefit.
Los Angeles cannabis czar Cat Packer had not even been approved by the City Council when her first advertised public appearance as executive director of the Los Angeles Department of Cannabis Regulation was announced this week: She's scheduled to speak at a nearly $895-per-person California Cannabis Business Conference in Anaheim. Organizers added Packer, along with state insurance commissioner David Jones, to the speaker lineup for the event Sept. 21-22. The keynote speaker is California Bureau of Cannabis Control chief Lori Ajax, better known as the state's first marijuana czar. According to the conference, Ajax will provide "insights on what business owners can expect as they prepare for success in 2018."
"It's nuts," says legalization critic Scott Chipman, Southern California chairman of the group Citizens Against Legalizing Marijuana. "This is an industry whose entire premise is to use a dangerous addictive substance to make money. This has never been about just keeping people out of jail."
Dale Gieringer, director of California NORML, praised Ajax for her accessibility but criticized the alleged profiteering displayed by events like the California Cannabis Business Conference. "She held events all over the state," he says. "She appeared and answered questions for free.
"But there are people out there charging for these conferences, and there are so many of them," he adds. "The people profiting most from this are the people holding the conferences. I caution anybody about trying to cash in on the green rush. It's sort of like the gold rush — the people who cashed in were mainly the ones who sold equipment to the gold miners."
Representatives of Packer and Ajax said they were not being paid for their appearances at the conference. Caolinn Mejza, communications deputy for City Council president Herb Wesson, said via email, "Cat accepted the invitation to speak on this panel before she was appointed executive director." (That seems dubious — the California Cannabis Business Conference announced Packer as a last-minute addition on Wednesday. Mayor Eric Garcetti announced his appointment of Packer one week earlier — on Aug. 9.) City officials offered assurances that Packer will be accessible at many free, public events in the months to come.
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“Los Angeles will lead the way with responsible cannabis regulation that puts the safety of our neighborhoods first," mayoral spokesman George Kivork said via email. "Cat will tell that story in a variety of settings — and looks forward to sharing her knowledge and insight with everyday Angelenos, industry leaders, regulators and anyone with questions about the new department and city policies."
Alex Traviso, chief of communications at the Bureau of Cannabis Control, said via email that Ajax was accessible at a June 30 town hall on pot regulation organized by L.A. Assemblyman Jones-Sawyer and that she appeared at state Treasurer John Chiang's Aug. 10 Cannabis Banking Working Group discussion at the Sheraton Gateway Hotel near LAX.
"The bureau participates in events, town halls, summits, panels, etc., all across the state," he said. "Some are free and some have an associated cost."
The organizer of the Anaheim conference, the California Cannabis Industry Association, contributed $22,151.32 to candidates and measures, including Proposition 64, last year, according to California Secretary of State figures. Recipients also include Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon and other fellow members of the lower house, who often were rewarded in the amount of $4,200, according to those state records. We reached out to the CCIA multiple times but no one responded.