In an outdoor amphitheater at a former Boy Scouts’ camp in the Mendocino County redwoods, Lori Ajax, chief of California’s Bureau of Cannabis Control, is addressing a crowd of business leaders from all aspects of the California cannabis supply chain. In the audience, many people are openly enjoying cannabis as they listen closely to the responses she provides to the moderator and event organizer, Meadow co-founder and CEO David Hua.
Attendees to Meadowlands are used to trying to navigate through the paperwork associated with a complex set of cannabis regulations in motion, but don’t often have an opportunity to hear from the head of the BCC directly. It’s a tense time for the California cannabis economy and this weekend at Meadowlands is about decompressing and recharging for the immense work still ahead. Ajax herself notes the outdoor setting is relaxing. Who would have thought, she says, that she’d be speaking at an event where attendees were smoking cannabis in the audience.
“This is what we do,” Hua says with a wide grin. “Hotels don’t allow us to. We’re good people.”
Held over the course of three days at Mendocino’s Camp Navarro, Meadowlands was a unique networking event for the California cannabis industry. Hosted by Meadow, a San Francisco-based software platform for cannabis businesses, the event was a weekend camping retreat for the state’s marijuana producers, sellers and facilitators that included presentations from California lawmakers and regulators alongside fireside chats, archery lessons and dips in the river off a rope swing.
The event came at a crucial moment for the California cannabis industry. On July 1, 2018, all licensed medical and adult-use providers will have to conform to new testing and packaging requirements. This means that many companies are planning for blow-out sales for products, followed by product shortages. California State Senator Kevin de León jokingly alluded to a “bonfire” in reference to the looming deadline before telling the Camp Navarro campers about his desire to increase the economic growth potential of cannabis alongside clean energy as a part of a “green economy.”
“We need to fight for legalization on the federal level,” said de León, who is currently campaigning to represent California in the U.S. Senate. “The green economy is knocking at the door.”
Ajax went further in addressing the looming July 1 deadline in her keynote address. When she was asked about potential remediation for retailers having to potentially destroy non-compliant products, she relayed a conversation she had had with a retailer a few days prior who told her stores are not ready to transition and said 60 percent of their current products would go away coupled with an inability to get enough compliant products in the door.
“I wasn’t expecting these numbers,” Ajax said.
Ajax said the BCC was under the impression that retailers were depleting their products and acknowledged the state should have been asking more questions to stay on the same page as the industry. She then threw a few hypothetical solutions out — possibly allowing non-state tested cannabis to go to compassion programs and possibly allowing retailers to go backward in the supply chain to have cannabis that has not gone through the still upcoming track-and-trace system, tested for sale.
“Usually with success you have a constant, like the North Star, but we have no constant,” Ajax said in response to a question about measuring success. She noted that she understands many cannabis companies are struggling to get licenses, while others who do have them are struggling to survive. “How do you prepare as a business when you’re not even sure what we’re going to put out there?” she said.
Ajax went on to speak about the numerous challenges of creating new systems to regulate medical and adult-use cannabis in California. The BCC has re-adopted and extended emergency regulations that allowed them to issue temporary cannabis licenses on Jan. 1, but now has a 180-day window to adopt final regulations. There will be no additional set of emergency regulations — this is it, she said. In response to a question about what keeps her up at night, Ajax said she is committed to the tight timeline to implement the Medicinal and Adult-Use Cannabis Regulation and Safety Act.
“We’re running out of time, we’ve got 180 days to get this done,” she said of the process to establish permanent licensing. “I do not sleep well anymore and I’ve heard you’ve got something for that.”
Ajax provided other lighthearted moments, including when she seemingly discovered how many cannabis companies are bearing large legal and consulting costs to become state compliant, before joking that she was a “blonde” and that the BCC would make a spreadsheet helping to define the regulations that were intended to be easy to follow.
But Meadowlands also included some stark facts. Meadow’s poll of attendees said that 88 percent were at a loss or the same place in terms of profitability from a year ago and many were either downsizing or not hiring. In addition, the Meadow poll showed 55 percent of attendees don’t believe the state’s medical marijuana program is still viable. Questions from the audience included talk of potential changes to packaging — “The plastic is honestly more harmful than the cannabis,” writer Elise McDonough said — as well as debate around how the state plans to take more information from adult-use consumers than they do from alcohol consumers at a bar.
After Ajax’s speaking time was over, she joined in a group photo before departing the event, which continued with fireside chats from industry leaders such as Frenchy Cannoli, Seibo Shen and Lanese Martin. The weekend’s activities also included ganja yoga, night hikes and s’mores around the campfire for the roughly 300 attendees staying together in the woods of Mendocino. While meals were provided, the cannabis was on a bring-it-yourself basis and there were no booths for sales of cannabis or related products.
“I’m still brimming with energy and excitement from the magic of this event,” Brad Bogus, the vice president of growth and marketing of Confident Cannabis said via a Facebook post on Monday. “To think that here we were, a bunch of professional adults, playing at summer camp and smoking weed with normalcy and abandon, with legit legislators engaging with us while we were happily consuming and asking them thoughtful questions — to try and put into words what a paradigm shift this was, fails me entirely. It was like nothing you could have ever imagined.”
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