Los Angeles’ First Cannabis Czar Cat Packer Steps Down

Michelle Garakian, assistant executive director of the Department of Cannabis Regulation, was appointed as interim executive director.
Packer
Courtesy of Department of Cannabis Regulation

Cat Packer stepped down from her role as executive director of the Los Angeles Department of Cannabis Regulation (DCR), home to one of the largest, most challenging cannabis markets in the world. It is with gratitude that we thank her for her service as the city’s first “cannabis czar.” 

Packer served nearly five years, as the first person to assume the role of executive director of the DCR. The department is responsible for administering the cannabis licensing and regulatory program established by the Los Angeles City Council. 

DCR processes all applications for thousands of cannabis licenses in the City of Los Angeles, makes licensing decisions or licensing recommendations to the Cannabis Regulation Commission and regulates the operations of licensed cannabis businesses in the city.

Under the title, Packer advised Los Angeles officials on cannabis law, policy and regulation, and oversaw the city’s licensed commercial cannabis market. It was a challenging position for anyone to tackle. Over 1,200 business licenses were granted with Packer at the helm.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti first announced her departure on Twitter. “Under Cat’s leadership, DCR issued over 1,200 licenses, with over 350 granted to Social Equity applicants,” Garcetti wrote in a tweet. “DCR has generated over $320M in tax revenue since 2018. Cat’s tenure at DCR made the department a national model in establishing equitable cannabis policy and implementation.”

Packer wrote a resignation announcement on March 14, outlining some of her accomplishments during her tenure as executive director. “I am confident that the City will continue to deepen its commitment to address cannabis policy reforms and the disproportionate impact of the War on Drugs, and to improve upon existing efforts that make cannabis public policy more responsible and equitable,” Packer wrote. “Furthermore, I trust that DCR will continue to keep equity at the center of its mission, and expand and improve cannabis programs and services.”

Ironing Out Licensing Hurdles

Garcetti appointed Packer to the position in August 2017, after city voters approved the local regulation and taxation of adult-use cannabis earlier that year. 

Packer faced overwhelming odds and pressure during her reign, with challenges that could be expected in America’s second-largest city. Licensing processes were under constant fire. ​​In 2020, for instance, cannabis business license applicants in Los Angeles sued the city, claiming the process for applying for a license is flawed.  

A lawsuit was filed by the Social Equity Owners and Workers Association—demanding that the city vet all applications based on a first-come-first-served basis or come up with a new system that is more equal and transparent.

Virgil Grant, co-founder of the California Minority Alliance, said Packer is the fall person” who took the blame for various problems from the get-go, according to The EUR/Electronic Urban Report, while others cited other issues.

“It took a considerable amount of time for us to get the resources, whether it be staff or otherwise, to put our licensing program forward,” Packer told High Times last July. Packer’s staff was eventually tripled to meet the growing needs. As of last year, her team grew from a tiny five-person staff to a more reasonable 15-person staff. 

Initially, Packer sought out to become a civil rights attorney focusing on LGBTQ rights. But things changed in 2012 when Colorado and Washington legalized adult-use cannabis. While aware of the issue, she didn’t think critically about the topic for a few more years. 

But then in 2015, her final year in law school, Cat Packer began taking courses on how the law impacted everyday people. Once she was introduced to The New Jim Crow by civil rights lawyer Michelle Alexander, a professor at the university, she said her eyes were opened. She agreed that nothing had contributed more to the systematic mass incarceration of people of color in the United States than the War on Drugs. 

In 2016, while working with Californians for Responsible Marijuana Reform, Packer campaigned for Proposition 64 with the Roll Up the Vote party with The Game and DJ Nitrane. It was around that time that High Times received emails from her and her campaign, urging volunteers to make calls to voters and get to work.

In the meantime, Michelle Garakian, assistant executive director of the Department of Cannabis Regulation, has been appointed interim executive director. Garakian was also a frequent correspondent with cannabis-related media.

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  1. Konichiwa Cat Packer

    On Monday, March 14, 2022 Cat Packer stepped down as the head of the Department of Cannabis Regulation in Los Angeles. On same day I learned that the California Department of Tax and Fee Administration (CDTDA) was seeking a levy on $30,8954 that had been removed from our bank accounts by the state of California and held for an entire year without explanation. I placed a call to the CDTFA and informed them that in order to avoid a 60% penalty on our sales and excise taxes I had used the money slated for the mortgage to pay those taxes. In January I requested a 3-month forbearance from my mortgage company and was expecting to pay the $28,650 balloon payment due April 1 with the money I expected to be returned on March 14. The CDTFA refused to return the money and I have been forced to request an exemption on the grounds that the money was necessary to support my dependents and myself. Now my wife and two children and I are waiting for the state of California to decide whether we will be able to stay in our home or whether we will go into foreclosure for paying our taxes on time.
    Cat Packer will ride off into the sunset and more than likely land a consulting job with a large cannabis firm while the “social equity applicants” the actual victims of the War on Drugs will be left holding the bag. In 1991 I was sent to prison for a year for selling 26.6 grams of cannabis to a confidential informant. After my release from prison I spent my entire life fighting to for the legalization of cannabis. In 2003 I wrote and produced the feature film “Every 43 Seconds” the first film ever made about an athlete whose medical use of cannabis lands him in prison. A copy of this film was sent to every member of Congress and the Senate and for years staff members in DC passed around the DVD’s.
    In 2009 my wife Lisa and I opened Grace Medical Marijuana Pharmacy and operated it for ten years. In 2019 Grace was forced to close after Cat Packer allowed criminals James Catipay, Peter Tajera Ali Sherkachian Devon Wheeler and Jay Handal to fraudulently deprive Grace of its location and then allowed ERBA to open in Grace Medical’s previous location. Sherkachian, Wheeler, and Handal then parleyed Grace Medical’s prime location and ill gotten gains into other stores, first attempting to take over Marina Caregivers, then opening up a number of ERBA dispensaries. Measure M prohibits one entity from owning more than one retail dispensary but under Packer’s tenure there has been unprecedented consolidation as large multi-state operators such as Med-Men and predatory operations like ERBA have bought up distressed dispensaries. Her decision to force social equity applicants to rent properties for years before being granted licenses has created a market for distressed “social equity” licenses which are being snapped up at cut rate prices.
    The high costs of doing business and taxes are driving most small operators out. Many in the industry believe that once the licenses are bought up and the big boys are all in, the taxes will be lowered and only big operators will survive. It sounds paranoid but I’ve learned “Anytime the government does something that doesn’t make sense it makes dollars.” In whose twisted mind was asking a victim of the War on Drugs to act as tax collectors by giving 38 cents out of every dollar they collect from their clients to the government that once victimized them? What business could survive under the conditions? The State of California continues to treat members of our industry like drug dealers. They have not given up using strong-arm tactics when we are in fact farmers, shopkeepers, delivery drivers and tax collectors. Just recently they barged into Jungle Boys during business hours emptied the registers and left. This is not what the voters had in mind.
    The Los Angeles Department of Cannabis Regulation should enforce the regulations against ownership of multiple locations and provide Tax Credits for Social Equity Licenses. For the first 5 years of Packer’s tenure these operators thrived and not a single Social Equity retail store opened. Now Social Equity operators are entering market against competitors that have had a 5-year head start.
    The first step in leveling this playing field is the reigning in the abuse of these operators. They must be broken up. After ERBA CEO Jay Handal threatened to stop ordering for all ERBA stores if they continued to supply Grace Delivery the CEOs of Source Cannabis and Cali Hash caved into pressure and after years of supplying us refused to take orders from Grace Delivery. Other brands and distributors have also received threatening messages but thankfully did not bow to pressure. This is the market that the Social Equity Operators are entering and what the regulations against owning multiple locations were put in place to prevent.
    The second step is a moratorium on the city taxes collected on Social Equity license holders. This moratorium will allow Social Equity businesses to charge and collect fewer taxes and give them a temporary price advantage over the existing competition. It will also provide a measurable financial penalty to the damage that Social Equity seeks to cure.
    The third step is to make the Cannabis Czar an elected position, responsible to the voters and to grant it executive powers over Cannabis regulation within the City of Los Angeles. In all fairness to Ms. Packer her position was largely as figurehead as the actual power behind the DCR remains hidden behind a convoluted web of influence peddlers in the city administration, corrupt city council members, and big donors. On the surface the DCR appears completely dysfunctional but in fact it is performing its function as intended by its architects. The DCR has provided the environment for a select few operators to gain a foothold on the most profitable cannabis market in the world while keeping out the competition, all the while claiming to do just the opposite. If you want proof, just look at the results.
    When you catch a thief breaking into your house he pretends he didn’t know what he was doing and that he must be in the wrong house. This is the tactic being employed. Behind the façade of incompetence you will find plain old-fashioned greed and corruption. The DCR needs real leadership not someone to just look the part while looking the other way.

    Jason Detamore
    CEO Grace Delivery
    gracemmp.com

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