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She Embodied The Hopes For L.A.’s Cannabis Program. Can She Overcome Its Stumbles?

By Emily Alpert Reyes Los Angeles Times

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) As L.A. Cannabis regulation leader Cat Packer has concluded, "It's one thing to pass an equitable policy," she told [a] crowd of applicants and activists. "It's another thing in its entirety for it to be implemented."

Los Angeles Times

When Cat Packer was chosen to head a Los Angeles city department that would help usher in the legalization of marijuana, then-Council President Herb Wesson billed her appointment as a bold example of what Los Angeles stood for.

Packer had been an activist with the Drug Policy Alliance who was firmly focused on how the war on drugs had battered communities of color. She was young, black and openly gay, with tailored suits, hair cut in a fade, and the cool, deliberate speech of a lawyer, and she had wowed Wesson at City Hall when she laid out statistics about racial inequity.

The Department of Cannabis Regulation, her new agency, was not just going to hand out permits for pot shops. It was supposed to do something much more ambitious and radical: Ensure that the communities hit hardest by the criminalization of marijuana would benefit from its legalization. Many saw the effort as a kind of reparations for the drug war.

Two years later, Packer would face a furious and disappointed crowd of cannabis applicants and activists in the marble chambers of City Hall and tell them that she was disappointed too. That the city had ended up hurting hundreds of people who took financial risks as they tried to nab a limited number of licenses. That she routinely told other cities not to do what L.A. did.

If Packer had once seemed to personify L.A.'s progressive vision for cannabis, she was now the public face of its stumbles in realizing that goal. Licensing for new shops had been put on hold. Wesson and Mayor Eric Garcetti had called for an audit. Packer was being berated by cannabis activists at public meetings and facing threats in her inbox.

"It's one thing to pass an equitable policy," she told the crowd of applicants and activists. "It's another thing in its entirety for it to be implemented." **

Cat was not the name she was given when she was born in Germany, a military kid who was shuttled to Virginia, Arizona and Virginia again. Her mother still calls her "Rina," a shortening of the German version of her name.

As a young teen, she turned to the police department to report being sexually assaulted by an officer, but the charges were ultimately dropped for insufficient evidence. Packer said that friends of the officer were involved in the investigation and even her attorney said it would be her word against his. It was an early experience, she said, of feeling let down by those in power.

"That's part of what led me to want to be an attorney," Packer said. "I knew that I did not have to make the same decisions that they made."

After reporting the assault, Packer left Virginia to join her father in Ohio, where she would go on to college, grad school and law school at Ohio State University. She had envisioned herself fighting for marriage equality when she took a course on marijuana policy while reading Michelle Alexander's "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness."

The words in one passage rang in her head: "Nothing has contributed more to the systematic mass incarceration of people of color in the United States than the war on drugs." Yet her privileged classmates casually smoked pot, and cannabis was already becoming a legal business in some states.

"Part of what was so astonishing to me," Packer said, "was how easy it was for us to shift public policy when there was profit as a motive." In Ohio, an initiative to legalize a limited number of marijuana growers was headed for the ballot, a proposal criticized by some activists as setting up a monopoly. Packer recalled sparring with a campaign official when he visited her class, pointing out to him that "this initiative wasn't going to do anything for people of color." When her professor, Doug Berman, stopped her after class and urged her to go to work for the campaign once she graduated, Packer said she asked, "Why?"

"Her seriousness of purpose was evident from the get-go," Berman recalled of his former student. He argued that, despite the shortcomings that Packer had pinpointed, the campaign would teach her things she couldn't learn in a classroom.

"She could have reacted by saying, 'These folks are never going to get it,'" Berman said. Instead, she joined the campaign as its assistant director of internal communications — a position she said amounted to doing just about everything.

The Ohio initiative ultimately failed. Packer had gotten back into grass-roots organizing in Ohio when she saw that the Drug Policy Alliance, a group seeking to reduce criminalization in drug policy, was hosting a strategy session in New York called "Drug Policy Reform Is Racial Justice Reform." She hitched a Megabus east with a file folder loaded with business cards and copies of her resume.

The bus broke down, but she was still the first person to arrive at the conference. Lynne Lyman, the former California state director of the Drug Policy Alliance, said she immediately knew that Packer was the person who would help her secure passage of Proposition 64 — the 2016 measure to legalize recreational pot — and swiftly hired her as campaign coordinator. In her new job, Packer soon began reaching out to cities about local programs to ensure "social equity." Just months after Packer had moved to Los Angeles, she went to City Hall to urge L.A. to put equity at the forefront of its cannabis regulations, recounting statistics about black people being disproportionately arrested on marijuana charges.

When she stopped talking, Wesson piped up from his seat, "Hey, Cat, do you have a resume? You just impress the hell out of me. Send one to me, please." *** When Packer was chosen to head the Department of Cannabis Regulation, many were elated. Kika Keith, a South L.A. resident who wants to open a shop selling cannabis-infused beverages, said it was the same kind of hope she once had about another young, vibrant black leader — Barack Obama — and that it had ended in the same disappointment.

"I still have love for her. I think she's a brilliant person," Keith said. "But she failed us."

Packer said she should have done a better job at managing expectations about a program that would never provide licenses for everyone who wanted them and that moved slower than they had hoped. But many of the problems now roiling the department were rooted in decisions made years earlier, she said, some before she was even appointed.

Under rules approved by the City Council, the Department of Cannabis Regulation had to first grant approval to existing shops that had followed city rules, then the growers and manufacturers who had supplied them, before it could start licensing new operators like Keith.

It was a huge task for a fledgling department with only a handful of employees in January 2018. "No one could have done what they were asking her to do," said Adam Spiker, executive director of the cannabis industry group Southern California Coalition.

As the department struggled to get through the paperwork for hundreds of businesses, more than a year and a half passed before it was ready to start licensing new shops under its social equity program, which was meant to help those hit hardest by the war on drugs. Many of those entrepreneurs, eager to grab coveted storefronts, were already forking over steep rents.

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