The term “Czar” has been used by various global governments throughout time. In the modern world, the czars hold pivotal roles in an administration, often overseeing a substantial concern facing the nation or globe. That said, you likely won’t find many individuals holding that exact title, as it serves as an unofficial title for a variety of high-ranking titles.
Czar appointments in the U.S. have been commonplace since Franklin D. Roosevelt held office. While most Presidents designated czars sparingly, Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama shattered the trend with over 30 appointees each. Current President Donald Trump appears to be bucking the trend forecasted for him in 2016, and has thus far gone the opposite direction, preferring multi-person committees to take on pressing concerns.
The Presidents’ appointed czars have never been friendly to the cannabis community throughout history. The appointment of the first drug czar, Harry Anslinger, accelerated global drug prohibition. Anslinger’s actions led to cannabis prohibition and the failed drug war that persists to this day. His actions also helped kick start the activist movement that continues to fight against such measures around the world.
Such reform efforts pushed back on the drug czar and the stigma around marijuana. Those shifting sentiments recently brought about a new occurrence in the U.S. government: a pro-cannabis czar. The appointments of several czars across the nation represents a shift on the state level despite the federal government digging in its heels. In each state, these czars are driving legislative change that meets the needs of the citizens and statewide policy reform.
The U.S. Federal Drug Czar
America still has a drug czar. Jim Carroll currently serves as the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy under the Trump administration. Per the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy, Carroll’s role centers on reducing drug use and the consequences of drug use. He is billed as doing so by establishing and implementing plans for federal drug policy. A key focus of the current administration has been providing support to President Trump’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction.
CBD has been a focus of Carroll’s as well. Last year, the director faced the House Committee on Oversight and Reform for a hearing about the cannabinoid, as well as race disparities surrounding drug treatment. During the hearing, Carroll said that uncertainty over the impact of edibles and other high potency items impact public health.
Marijuana Czars on the State and Municipal Level
The roles and responsibilities of each czar varies by jurisdiction—as well as by the person taking over the role. California is a prime example.
Nicole Elliott serves as Senior Advisor on Cannabis to Governor Gavin Newsom’s Office of Economic Development. A veteran of the California political world, Elliott previously served as the czar of San Francisco’s cannabis office. Elliott has helped craft cannabis policy, which has been a sticking point over the years. The Senior Advisor also spends part of her time facing the media and discussing some of the more hot button issues in the state, like delivery in cities that don’t want adult use stores in their city.
In the capital city Sacramento, the first czar, Joe Devlin, oversaw the city’s 30 retail locations. Devlin also oversaw applications for various cannabis companies hoping to operate in Sacramento. In 2019, after two years on the job, Devlin stepped away. Davina Smith would take over the role seven months later in January 2020. Instead of Devlin’s tasks, Smith’s central tasks may be reforming the image of a market harmed by claims of bribes as well as one dispensary owner having ties to Rudy Giuliani’s campaign-finance scheme.
Meanwhile, in Southern California, Los Angeles’ Department of Cannabis Regulation (DCR) is tasked with overseeing the licenses and regulations of the program set by the L.A. City Council. Like Devlin, the DCR’s work focuses on licensing, offering decisions and recommendations to the city’s Cannabis Regulation Commission. The department’s Executive Director is Cat Packer, who has a political science and public policy background, serving as the Drug Policy Alliance’s California Policy Coordinator.
Like Sacramento, Colorado saw significant change in leadership. In May 2019, Governor Jared Polis appointed cannabis business consultant firm founder Ean Seeb as his special advisor on cannabis. The move received support from many that endorse the appointment of a cannabis industry professional for the first time. Seeb now works as Polis’ liaison with the state Department of Revenue while working with the legislature as well.
Czars of the American Medical Cannabis Markets
The demands of the medical market vary by state as well. New York State turned to Norman Birenbaum to get adult-use legislation passed. Appointed at the end of 2019, Birenbaum was appointed to lead on policy proposals. Prior to working in New York, Birenbaum served as the top regulator in Rhode Island for the state’s medical program. His departure came after the state put forth proposed regulations to expand its number of dispensaries.
Florida also made headlines when Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried appointed Holly Bell as the first director of cannabis for Florida’s Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Bell, who previously worked in Nashville as a consultant, traveled the U.S. and internationally in executive roles. In her first governmental role, Bell’s focus has been “95% on hemp,” she told High Times.
Bell credits Fried with creating a role that is claimed to be the first in the nation. The state cannabis director said the pro-cannabis Fried wanted a hemp program with a vision. Bell explained putting the vision into action, which includes “[getting] the farmers an alternative crop, another solution…then also to regulate a program that was up and running but had gotten ahead of legislation.”
Unlike New York, Bell and the department remain neutral on adult use legalization. Aside from providing assistance to the state Department of Health on edibles, work focuses on hemp, but would support legalization if it passed.
The roles of czars vary greatly, as do the official titles each holds. Every person put in the role faces a unique set of tasks specific to the state. Even if a not-so-uncommon pressing issue, each state’s various political and ideological makeup presents hurdles very few have had to encounter before them. If successful, the progress of each state may help push the federal government to one day pass reform of its own.