After nearly five years serving as the first executive director of the Los Angeles Department of Cannabis Regulation (DCR), Cat Packer is stepping down from the head regulator position of California’s largest city.
As the department’s executive director, Packer advised Los Angeles officials on cannabis law, policy and regulation, and she oversaw the city’s licensed commercial cannabis market.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric 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.
Commenting on her departure in a social media post on March 9, Garcetti said, “When we established DCR, we knew we needed a fierce leader who would not shy away from controversy associated with this responsibility. Cat was that leader.”
Outspoken in her role, Packer publicly criticized the Los Angeles City Council for leaving DCR understaffed and underfunded while the department was tasked with overseeing one of the largest cannabis markets in the world, POLITCO reported.
Specifically, Packer helped navigate the department through the rollout of the city’s Social Equity Program, which opened the application process for retail licenses in September 2019, after the California Cannabis Equity Act of 2018 and the Budget Act of 2019 appropriated state funding, include $7.8 million to Los Angeles, to help local jurisdictions develop and operate cannabis equity programs.
But the first 100 applications in the first-come, first-service process for businesses to apply for licenses drew criticism from those who were left out. In November 2019, Garcetti ordered a third-party audit, which left many potential license winners paying additional months of real estate rent without seeing a return on their investments.
The city ended up approving 200 social equity applicants to operate dispensaries, but less than 15% of those applicants had opened their businesses as of January 2022, according to POLITICO.
Packer, who holds law, master’s and undergraduate degrees from Ohio State University, previously worked as a policy coordinator for Drug Policy Alliance in Los Angeles, before taking on the DCR executive director role.
After Packer announced her intention to step down last week, former colleague Lynne Lyman praised her for her work with DCR during the public comment period of the Los Angles Cannabis Regulation Commission’s public meeting March 10. Lyman is the former California state director of the Drug Policy Alliance.
Lyman said she brought Packer aboard California’s Drug Policy Alliance team in 2016 as a campaign coordinator to help pass Proposition 64. A few months after that adult-use legalization ballot initiative succeeded, Garcetti called upon Packer to lead DCR.
“The work that Cat Packer has stood up over the past four-plus years is tremendous, a literal example of building the airplane while flying it,” Lyman said. “[She] built out the department from scratch, now with over 30 employees, implementing the complex licensing system she inherited in the ordinance, creating one of the first and largest social equity programs.”
Packer and her team administered more than $6 million in financial assistance to social equity applicants, and provided hundreds of hours in business and legal assistance, Lyman said.
In addition, while the Los Angeles City Council was out of commission during the onset of the pandemic, Packer and her team kept their nose to the grindstone and rewrote the city’s social equity ordinance to help close loopholes and assign the remaining retail licenses to social equity applicants, Lyman said.
“This was the kind of bold commitment to establishing a meaningful cannabis social equity licensing program we had been hoping for when we legalized statewide,” Lyman said. “And while these licensing efforts have continued to struggle from inadequate funding for the department and lack of political will, Cat Packer and her team put infrastructure in place to promote and defend social equity ownership.
“When many city officials from across the state were tempted by bribery from the fast-cash cannabis industry, Cat Packer could not be bought, controlled or bullied into doing the big industry favors.”
While big-city politics and cannabis legalization can sometimes lead to corruption, Lyman described Packer as a person of tremendous integrity.
With Packer stepping down, DCR assistant executive director Michelle Garakian will take over the reins on an interim basis.
Overseeing policy, education and community outreach at DCR for nearly four years, Garakian previously worked as Garcetti’s director of legislative policy.