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This story begins with a seemingly boring — and, frankly, selfish — question I posed to a state official earlier this week: Once the commissioners of the new Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission are appointed, supposedly by September 1, whom do I call with questions?
Every state agency has a designated press contact, but the CCC doesn’t even exist yet, much less have a spokesperson. Will the chair give out his or her cell phone number to reporters? Do I go through Governor Charlie Baker’s press team, even though the CCC is supposed to be independent? Treasurer Deborah Goldberg’s office? How’s this going to work? My source had no clue.
That led to a longer discussion about the other people who make a typical regulatory body tick: A chief of staff, an executive director, a general counsel, assistants, and so on. And then what about office space, phones, computers, and chairs? I mean, the deadline’s days away and no one in state government can even say where these people are going to sit down and work, nor answer other basic questions about how the CCC will get off the ground.
That’s troubling, because as a recent Globe editorial wisely points out, the CCC will not have a grace period. To hit the aggressive deadline of permitting rec dispensaries to open by July 1, 2018, the agency will have to work practically around the clock starting September 1.
Meanwhile, municipal officials, pot entrepreneurs, advocates, and consumers are all dying to call the CCC and ask questions, establish relationships, or lobby its officials. Here’s hoping the commissioners splurged on unlimited talk and text, because their phones are going to blow up the second their names become public — and there’s no one to screen the calls.
Is anyone ready to help out?
A spokeswoman for Goldberg — who is widely rumored to be bitter over the Legislature stripping her of sole control of the CCC — said only: “Given the independent nature of the Commission, we do not have the resources or the authority to administratively support startup of the new agency.” So, I’ll put you down as a “no,” then?
Baker’s administration sent recycled boilerplate saying it looks forward to “appointing a member to the CCC and working with the Legislature, [Goldberg], and the Attorney General’s office to implement this portion the law.” Translation: a “maybe” at best.
BEEN THERE, DONE THAT
If there’s one person in Massachusetts who can relate to the CCC’s challenges, it’s Steve Crosby.
The first and still-reigning Chairman of the Massachusetts Gaming Commission (MGC), which oversees casino gambling in the state, Crosby also had to build an independent agency from scratch while under intense scrutiny. (I should acknowledge that Crosby was later embroiled in a conflict-of-interest controversy, but it’s not relevant for our purposes.)
In fact, the CCC is closely modeled after the MGC — if you plug the text of the new marijuana law into plagiarism-detection software alongside the gaming statute, it flunks. The Legislature copied huge chunks of the gambling rules verbatim into its recreational pot bill.
When I reached him Friday, Crosby didn’t have anything very encouraging to say about the odds that the CCC will hit its deadlines.
“They’re going to have a tremendous challenge,” he said.
Crosby reminded me that he had a nearly five-month window between his nomination in late 2011 and the commission’s formal swearing-in and first meeting in April 2012. Crosby and his fellow gaming commissioners spent those winter months finding office space, hiring a couple key staffers, and generally getting up to speed.
By the time the MGC officially opened for business, “we had office space, furniture, phones, an executive assistant, and a chief of staff,” Crosby said. Good thing, too, because the agency was immediately deluged with calls. “The CCC will need a communications person right off the bat,” Crosby advised, recalling that he was forced to quickly hire a PR consultant to handle the flood.
The gaming commission then had a full 18 months before the first applications were due — for a grand total of four licenses. It was generally empowered to set its own pace, and had $15 million from the state (which it quickly burned through). The CCC, on the other hand, has just $2 million so far and 10 months. Oh, and it will likely receive hundreds, if not thousands, of applications for marijuana licenses.
Staffing the MGC took longer than expected, Crosby said. Few if any people in Massachusetts had experience regulating gambling, which until then had been illegal (sound familiar?), and background checks on prospective employees and state hiring rules further slowed things down.
“You can’t find these people by snapping your fingers,” he warned.
Asked whether he has any advice for the CCC, Crosby sighed. He has plenty, he said, but no one in state government has reached out since the passage of the law to ask for it.
Well, Mr. Chairman, we here at TWIW are only too happy to help pass along your wisdom.
“Just like with gaming, this is about doing it right, not doing it fast,” Crosby said. “I would encourage them to weather the storm of criticism for being slow. Everybody crapped on us, but we just lived with it. In the very long run, no one’s going to care whether the businesses open this month or that month, but they’ll care a lot if you don’t get the licensing process and regulatory standards right. Any false step, inadvertent or otherwise, will lead to firestorms, and they have to be strong enough to resist the pressure to go fast for speed’s sake.”
So. Anyone ready to bet money on dispensaries opening July 1?Dan Adams can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Dan_Adams86.