Utah’s cannabis czar is leaving his job

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) The propagation room at Tryke, a new cannabis farm in Tooele, contains the genetic makeup of all the plant varieties being grown at the company on Thursday, Jan. 30, 2020, as it gets ready to have products available for patients by March as part of Utah's medical cannabis program.

Days after Utah fully launched its medical marijuana program, the state’s cannabis czar says he’s exiting his role.

Andrew Rigby, Utah’s hemp and medical cannabis program director at the department of agriculture and food, confirmed that he’s leaving his state job in the next week or two. His plan has always been to depart the agency after getting the cannabis cultivation program up and running, he said.

“I’ve had my run. I’m happy. I’ve done my work, and I’m proud of my contributions,” Rigby said Thursday.

Rigby took the helm of the agriculture agency’s cannabis program early last year. Since then, he’s supervised the creation of rules for the newborn cannabis cultivation industry and the selection of the eight companies that would grow the state’s first marijuana crop.

Rigby said he’s invested in a startup that has developed a health care app for medical staffing and that leaving his state job will allow him to take a more active role with the venture. The company, called Nursa, has nothing to do with the cannabis industry, he said, and he has no business ties to any of the state’s medical marijuana companies.

He said he’s prohibited from working in the U.S. cannabis industry until late next year because of a three-year noncompete clause in paperwork he signed when parting ways with a previous marijuana business. The clause included an exception that allowed him to take his job with the state. Even when the noncompete restrictions expire, Rigby said he doesn’t anticipate a return to the marijuana industry.

Officials and patients earlier this week celebrated the opening of the state’s first cannabis pharmacy, Dragonfly Wellness, in Salt Lake City. But the new medical marijuana program has run into difficulties since then, with some patients struggling to sign up for a cannabis card using the state’s online portal. As a result, the Dragonfly pharmacy has had to turn away scores of potential customers who don’t yet have the necessary credentials to buy cannabis treatments.

However, Rigby said he feels confident in the program’s future.

“I wouldn’t step away if I didn’t have faith and trust in the people running it,” he said. “This has been like a huge project and there’s almost a feeling of family at this point. Everyone is on the same page, and we all are working towards one common goal, and that’s having the best program available for our patients.”

The Utah Department of Agriculture and Food confirmed that Rigby is departing over the next couple weeks and indicated that agency officials have been anticipating his move for several months.

“We can never replace Andrew Rigby and his leadership,” Kelly Pehrson, interim agriculture commissioner, said Thursday in a prepared statement. “However, we have put together a team that we hope can absorb all of his duties and maintain the same service we have been providing to the industry.”

Rigby said he doesn’t expect the department will hire a replacement for him and that his responsibilities will shift to Pehrson and other staff members at the agency. He’ll be “waiting in the wings” and on call as needed by the department, he added.

Tom Paskett, executive director of the Utah Cannabis Association, said he’s enjoyed working with Rigby over the past year. Despite the bumps registering patients, Paskett said the program seems to be working smoothly on the cannabis production side.

“Cultivation and processing seems to be up and running and doing well,” Paskett said. “There seems to be plenty of product from what I hear from folks like Dragonfly.”