Shortly after Michelle Garakian replaced Cat Packer in March to become the Los Angeles marijuana czar, the city invoked mandatory timelines to process and approve cannabis business applications and licenses.
Unclogging that bottleneck is among Garakian’s top priorities.
In particular, she aims to remove bureaucratic red tape as well as better communicate with and help operators and applicants in one of the world’s largest regulated marijuana markets.
Garakian, a longtime insider at the L.A. Department of Cannabis Regulation (DCR) and former aide to Mayor Eric Garcetti, spoke with MJBizDaily for a wide-ranging discussion on marijuana policy, new department initiatives and the push to transfer thousands of temporary permits into annual licenses.
What are your overarching goals for the DCR moving forward?
To get back to the mission of the department, which is licensing.
We’re really focused on business development and customer service.
That has been a core tenet guiding me, in addition to centering social equity in every single one of those tenets.
What should stakeholders know about the new social equity verification process?
The verification rules have changed.
The council made a concerted decision to narrow the criteria because they wanted to ensure the folks getting into this process were the folks that were really dealing with the impacts of the war on drugs.
You have to have a cannabis conviction or arrest and either live in a disproportionately impacted area or prove (you’re) low income.
For residency requirements, we’re not using not using ZIP codes anymore; we’re using police reporting districts
This is really narrowing it down to where the most cannabis convictions or cannabis arrests have taken place.
Since this process opened May 26, we’ve received approximately 900 applications.
Once the verification window closes July 25, the department has at least 90 days to process those requests.
What’s behind the push to allow social equity licensees to relocate? The council has yet to take this issue up, but it’s gaining traction.
We really need to be able to allow them to move outside of their community plan.
I think the council is warming up to it. We’re going to continue to advocate for that.
It’s going to be a game changer and a life saver for a lot of people.
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Have you started ramping up staff to meet new application deadlines?
We were allocated 21 new positions. Our department is doing interviews multiple times a week.
I was sitting on a panel of interviews, and we interviewed almost 17 people on two different days.
We are trying to onboard people as much as possible.
There was a hiring freeze for two years, and when that was lifted, all these big departments started hiring and everybody has vacancies. So it’s mega-competitive.
(There will be) a lot of positions in the licensing sector. That’s where we need the capacity.
A few positions in the social equity group. A few positions for our communications and policy staff.
And we’re bringing in more high-level management, so a lot of the policy work isn’t so concentrated at executive level.
What other new initiatives are on the way from the DCR?
We’re trying to manage our email accounts better. We instituted a new process so people are getting a 48- to 72-hour turnaround on their emails.
We’ve implemented a system where phone calls are being picked up faster and we’re tracking how many calls we’re getting.
Trying to focus our department to run more like a business.
I’m trying to track these benchmarks because I want to see if things are improving quarter to quarter.
When I first (was promoted) in March, I asked my assistant to set up 25 different stakeholder meetings and just talk with a variety of stakeholders: ‘What are your challenges? What are your issues? Send me three top things you’d like to see get done.’
Some of those things we’ve actually done. I’m listening, and I’m trying to be as receptive as possible.
What will you do about the underground market and bringing unlicensed operators into the regulated market?
There’s a lot of urgency around this issue.
DCR has no authority under local law to enforce against unlicensed activity. … Nor do we have any authority to directly influence how other city agencies prioritize their resources to address this issue.
Folks are using the complaint portal in the department to make complaints about illegal businesses and legal businesses.
If it’s an illegal business, it will go to (the police). They can go in … and disconnect the water and power.
Then Department of Building and Safety comes in with a civil enforcement activity to padlock and board the premises.
But as we know, this is a Whac-a-Mole game.
We even asked for $10 million (from the city council) to create a fund this year that different agencies would draw from for various activities related to enforcement.
That wasn’t a request that was honored. You’re definitely going to see more robust enforcement activity.
What’s your plan to assist social equity applicants and license holders?
We’ve developed an online learning-management system that offers over 90 hours of educational cannabis business content.
In April, we were doing two business, licensing and compliance webinars a week on topics ranging from inventory to security to hiring to how to fill out insurance forms.
We’re also developing a capital case workers pilot for 20 people.
The program is designed for applicants who have passed through the pre-application review stage.
We’re pairing them with coaching consultants who will help assist them with financial literacy, credit repair, access to capital and assistance locating compliant properties.
We just got another $5.7 million from the state, and that’s going toward a rental-assistance program.
We had a really successful career fair in March. We now have a board up so people can post jobs, and job seekers can find jobs.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Chris Casacchia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.