Business

SCOOP: Top LA regulator Cat Packer steps down

By Alex Halperin
Mar 10, 2022
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Cat Packer, the first executive director of the Los Angeles Department of Cannabis Regulation(DCR), is stepping down after nearly five years at what might be the hardest job in American weed. 

A spokesperson for Mayor Eric Garcetti’s office confirmed to WeedWeek that Packer is leaving to pursue other professional opportunities. “We’re sad to lose her, but the Mayor is deeply grateful for her service.”

Packer will be replaced by assistant executive director Michelle Garakian on an interim basis.

LA is often called the world’s largest cannabis market. But the city has not been fertile terrain for the legal industry. The collision of big city politics and an entrenched cannabis community all but ensured that legalization would be, as a couple folks described it to me this week, “a shitstorm.”  

When Mayor Eric Garcetti appointed Packer in August 2017, a few months before the state REC market opened, she expressed the widely shared hope that LA would be the national model of “responsible, equitable cannabis policies.”

  • Packer holds law, master’s and undergraduate degrees from Ohio State.
  • She’d previously been California Policy Coordinator for the Drug Policy Alliance, a drug reform non-profit which emphasizes social justice over industry priorities. 
  • (In early 2019, she joined myself and her fellow Buckeye Donnell Alexander on the WeedWeek Podcast.)

On top of the usual cannabiz complications, Packer had to face three issues that existed in no other city:

  • A group of about 135 dispensaries which had essentially been grandfathered in in 2007 expected to receive licenses. 
  • There was also a group of growers manufacturers and suppliers, more or less grandfathered in a few years later, who also expected to receive licenses. 
  • There were more than 1,000 unlicensed trap shops and delivery services operating openly in the metro area.

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No one expected it to be easy. The day that ensured it wouldn’t be came two years into Packer’s tenure.

In September 2019, the city opened the application process for equity retail licenses. The first 100 applicants to file in a computer system would move on to the next stage. To qualify, they already had to be paying rent on a property.

  • The 100 applications arrived almost immediately, and some who had been left out complained about glitches in the system. 
  • After several weeks, Mayor Garcetti ordered an audit, which took five months, and burned five months of applicants’ rent. The investigators didn’t find evidence of bias, as some had alleged, but applicants had become embittered and the process still had a long way to go. 
  • At the same time, well-capitalized delivery services and dispensary chains were opening in cities like West Hollywood and Culver City, both surrounded by LA. They began to undermine any first mover advantage the equity shops were supposed to have.
  • A group of the estranged founders formed a union called the Social Equity Owners and Worker Association (SEOWA) and in April 2020 they sued the city. The parties reached a settlement that doubled the number of available equity dispensary licenses to 200. They began to open last year.
  • This was only one of several lawsuits to tie up the licensing process. 

The LA market, especially the small businesses within it, continues to face tremendous challenges, on top of the oversupply, taxation and other problems crippling smaller businesses across the state.

  • Further complicating matters, the city is also now going through an ordinance revision process. It began with a motion, filed by City Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson in September, aimed squarely at improving DCR performance.  

There’s a great deal of lingering bitterness at DCR. But as Packer leaves the job, the equity program is operational.  

  • Chicago, Oakland, San Francisco, Boston and other major cities have tried to create equitable markets, each with their own shambolic moments. Success stories remain rare.
  • LA now has about 200 storefronts, some of which deliver and 38 standalone delivery services. 
  • That amounts to roughly one license for every 16,000 Angelenos compared to 12,300 in San Francisco.

Michelle Garakian, who has the unenviable job of leading DCR, previously served as Mayor Garcetti’s director of legislative policy.