From the moment she was appointed to the Cannabis Control Commission in 2017, attorney and advocate Shaleen Title made waves on Beacon Hill with her outspoken, activist approach to marijuana regulation and insistence on racial equity in licensing cannabis companies.
Three-plus years later, she’s preparing to depart the agency she helped found — and sat down virtually with TWIW for a full debrief on her term. Our conversation follows below, lightly edited for length and clarity.
So — here you are at the end of your term. How are you feeling as this wild ride pulls into the station?
ST: I feel proud. I feel relieved. It feels like good timing because it’s so hard to stay laser-focused on marijuana when it feels like we’re on the brink of major societal change. I’m also a little anxious about what’s next, but confident that I did everything I possibly could and that it’s in the hands of people I trust.
It’s also a little anticlimactic because I’ve been working at home, so I’m just turning in my computer — everything else is the same. This time last year I was starting to organize a huge party for the end of my term on August 31 — no government or media, just a gigantic rager. But I guess I have to save that for later.
When you were appointed in 2017, you were the only commissioner of five who had voted for legalization, and some people feared this agency had essentially been stacked and set up to thwart the intention of the 2016 ballot initiative. Were those also your expectations? How did it actually play out?
ST: We’ll never know if that’s how it was supposed to go but it definitely did not play out that way.When I came in, I looked at the makeup of the commission and at myself and did feel maybe a little set up to be a token, in a lot of ways. But I had no intention of letting equity be anything but the central issue. I wasn’t going to be on the sidelines and not make an impact. So I decided to purposefully take up a lot of space right from the beginning, so that equity wouldn’t be seen as a side issue and the people I saw myself as representing — people of color, marijuana consumers, young people, people who voted yes on legalization — wouldn’t be sidelined either.
The thing was, though, no one at the commission really saw me that way to begin with. They were committed to equity too. In particular, [commission chairman] Steve [Hoffman] and [commission executive director] Shawn [Collins] never treated my ideas with less respect than anyone else’s, and everyone else followed their lead.
Even with that relatively warm reception, what was it like to be an activist in government? How did your strategy and tactical sense evolve over your term?
ST: I can say for sure that government bureaucracy needs more activist energy and more of what I think of as attorney energy: Looking at evidence, making your case, arguing for the result you want — which is helping the people you represent — and poking holes in other people’s arguments. I didn’t see enough of that in government, even when there were a lot of attorneys in the conversation. Instead of arguing over what the law says in theory, it should be more about the substance and the results and how you can help your constituents. In government, though, that’s often seen as “being too much of an advocate” or somehow less pure than just thinking about theoretical language.
That said, for me, it became more about collaboration over time than trying to take up space. I started out treating every little issue as the same, but I eventually realized not everything needs a big expository speech and fiery open discussion, even though the public reacted well to that. I would sense my colleagues rolling their eyes and I learned that collaborating ahead of time would get better results for me and for the public. I learned to save that activist energy for when it was really needed.
Like in the beginning, I was giving speeches and looking to apply pressure from every angle, which is the central skill of an activist — you don’t have power so you stretch every little bit of power that you have. But when you’re in office and you are charged with making collaborative decisions with other people, then it’s more important to look at evidence and come up with decisions together. I was still willing to escalate things when needed to, but not every single time, not as the default.
Trying to get data from [the state Department of Public Health] during the ban on vape sales [in 2019] was a prime example of that. We needed their numbers to know whether regulated products were causing these lung illnesses, which the data and investigations from other states strongly suggested were caused by unregulated vapes. In line with that lesson I learned about working together, I tried to get that information behind the scenes, staff to staff. When that didn’t work, I brought it up at a public commission meeting. Then I started asking legislators for help and tweeting about it, because the purpose of the ban was purportedly to gather evidence about what the cause of the illnesses was, yet here they were hiding that very information. The ban on legal vapes was obviously pushing people into the unregulated market, so I thought it was a matter of life and death and that it was important to escalate the situation. I ended up going to a DPH hearing on the ban that a judge ordered them to hold and asking for the data along with Steve [Hoffman]. We eventually got it.
You referenced some frustration with the way government works and what really motivates people in public office. Was that culture a shock, coming from the outside?
ST: Well, the commission certainly isn’t perfect, but I think it’s evolved to be a model of good governance in a lot of ways: We have a research department, we publicly look at the same evidence as everybody else, and we make transparent, objective decisions. You can disagree with the decisions but you know where they came from.
That isn’t how things get decided in the Legislature, even though I think individual legislators are pretty well-informed on marijuana — especially the members of the Legislature’s Joint Cannabis Committee, which operated fairly transparently and based on evidence. Where I experienced real culture shock was around the way decisions get made. People in government take it for granted but I couldn’t believe that if you want to get anything done, regardless of what legislators think about it, you have to go in and suck up to the speaker or the big committee chair for like two years or it’ll never happen. If you don’t, you won’t even get a vote on your bill. First of all, these are people who have vast authority over our lives — who has two years to spend sucking up to make the littlest change? And then you learn, oh, by the way, it’s already pre-ordained who the next king-like person is going to be, and the person after that, too! It’s crazy, and I don’t think your average, everyday citizen knows it works that way.
I think the solution is simple, though. We need more elected leaders like this wave of progressive legislators that decided to run post-Trump. I hope there will be another wave post-COVID. If we elect and empower those types of legislators and support them once they’re in office, we’ll have legislative bodies where the currency — the thing that fundamentally motivates people — is how well you’re serving your constituents. That would be much better than what we have now, which is basically this political economy that’s based on petty grudges, perceived slights, and favors owed. We may not be able to do much about Trump and COVID, but we do have real influence over who we put in state office.
That’s a pretty harsh indictment of the State House. Which marijuana bills are you thinking of that legislators ought to have passed, in your view?
ST: Primarily the [host community agreement] bill. I really thought that once the commission voted to endorse it — and explained that we wanted to fix this problem and were willing to review the contracts for compliance — that the Legislature would at least discuss it and vote on it. The [Massachusetts] House did pass it, but the Senate didn’t even take it up, which surprised me, between the commission request, the federal investigation, and the widespread understanding that [host community agreements] were shakedowns and a recipe for corruption.
Do you feel like your outspokenness and candid tweets got you in hot water? Some are speculating that’s why you weren’t reappointed. [Title’s seat is co-appointed by Gov. Charlie Baker, Attorney General Maura Healey, and Treasurer Deborah Goldberg, who recently chose Nurys Camargo to replace her.]
ST: I actually felt really supported by most people. I would get a lot of down-low high-fives when I went to meet with legislators and local officials, and heard from people who said my communication style helped them understand the issues better and engage more as citizens. I’m sure behind the scenes other people in power were upset about it and trying to get the other commissioners to keep me in line, but they always respected my prerogative to speak out.
As for the commission seat, I was just told they chose to go in a different direction, which is completely valid. And I should take the opportunity to clear up this whole process: I’m grateful just to have been appointed at all, let alone be invited to serve extra 4 months past the end of term, during which we passed historic protections for consumers and patients. For the second term, I had initially declined to be considered, but decided to offer to serve an additional term as I saw the government in crisis dealing with the pandemic, and as I saw applications for [former] Commissioner [Kay] Doyle’s seat re-open multiple times [indicating a low number of interested candidates].
I was up front and told the appointing authorities it was about experience versus fresh perspectives, and that there might be a lot of value in someone with new ideas who didn’t immediately think like a government official, which I was starting to. I certainly never felt entitled to the seat. I think they looked at all the candidates and chose the right one for the moment, just like they did the first time. I spoke with Nurys [Camargo] and I’m confident she has what it takes to make the role her own and keep the commission’s progress going.
Overall, I’ve been lucky to have a lot of firsts in my career: The first campaign to legalize marijuana [in Colorado], the first cannabis law firm, the first cannabis career fair in the state, and then serving as an inaugural commissioner. If you don’t move on, you don’t get to experience the next first.
What do you consider to be the biggest accomplishments of your term? The expedited review of applications from disadvantaged groups seems to be making a noticeable difference in terms of equity, and the recent approval of expanded delivery licenses promises to do even more.
ST: Honestly, I think the biggest thing we did right and the theme behind all our successful policies was listening. Even though I hated being subject to the open meeting law, because it meant I could barely talk to my fellow commissioners about our work except at public meetings, people could always see why we made the decisions we did. We were really good at gathering data and incorporating feedback as we made new decisions, which made our stakeholders feel empowered and mobilized to come back and give us more feedback. That was a good cycle to be in. We went from a place where people were literally protesting our meetings because they felt so frustrated by a lack of progress to making a lot of the changes they wanted. We could have just shut down and gotten defensive about all the work we had already done, but instead every commissioner was using their expertise to figure out what more we could do. That resulted in the delivery policy you mentioned, thanks to [former] Commissioner [Britte] McBride, and the expedited review policy from [former] Commissioner Doyle, which has resulted in over 100 minority-, women-, and veteran-owned businesses getting provisionally licensed. And we have a strong focus on staff diversity and positive impact plans thanks to Commissioner [Jen] Flanagan.
To the extent other states are looking to us as an example, what did Massachusetts get right and get wrong on marijuana policy?
ST: Having an independent body with smart people making evidence-based decisions was what we got right. As for what we got wrong, pretty much every state has messed up local control, but we messed it up the worst — and then we refused to fix it. I think other states can see exactly what not to do.
My suggestion for other states is to tie local revenue to local control decisions that support equity. I worked on language that would do that here [in Massachusetts], where a city or town would get a small extra slice of state marijuana tax revenue for each dollar spent at a local business owned by an economic empowerment or social equity applicant. That would incentivize municipalities to help those businesses get past all the barriers — zoning, host community agreements — to the point where it’s open and dollars are coming in. The other thing states should look at is our lack of loans or grants for those applicants, and that we didn’t give more specificity to how marijuana tax revenue should be reinvested in communities disproportionately harmed by prohibition.
How would you rate your appointing authorities on cannabis issues? You clashed publicly with Gov. Charlie Baker on several occasions over decisions you disagreed with.
ST: They were largely hands-off. I did appreciate that other than the initial delivery and social consumption regulations [in 2018], they never tried to impede our work. Even when I publicly disagreed with the governor, like I did about the vape ban, no one ever tried to silence me.
That said, I think it’s kind of on the people of Massachusetts that we don’t have the marijuana leadership you see in other states. If you elect an anti-legalization Republican you can’t expect him to act like the governors in Illinois or Colorado or elsewhere that have pardoned nonviolent cannabis offenders or automatically expunged old records. Those are things we should strive for in the future here. Ultimately, it was their job to appoint people with integrity and expertise and I think they did that very well.
The Massachusetts cannabis community clearly sees you as a leader, and you said earlier that representing marijuana consumers and communicating with the community to demystify policy debates and marshal their support was an important part of your job. Yet the community seems increasingly beset by infighting, especially now that there’s real money to be made in this business. What will your role in the community look like after your term ends? Anything you’d say to them?
ST: I’m extremely appreciative of the community because they really empowered me and trusted me and gave me the benefit of doubt the last three years. That always made me feel like I could take risks, and even if something didn’t work out, I could come back and be honest with my constituents about it.
Watching the way the community is starting to fracture a little bit reminds me of what I saw about 10 years ago when medical marijuana was starting to become more profitable and people were changing from activists to more self-interested business owners. I guess the lesson from that experience is, stay true to your principles and be consistent because you’ll be much more powerful as a group than individually fighting for your own profits.
Four years after legalization, what do you make of the marijuana culture in Massachusetts? It seems we still have a lot of stigma around cannabis on the East Coast compared to the West Coast.
ST: After spending a lot of time on the West Coast, I’m excited to see what it will look like on the East Coast when cannabis is finally accepted into our culture, and people who use it are treated like the law-abiding citizens they are in terms of their employment, their housing, and their general right to live freely. It’ll look different, because I think we see ourselves differently on the East Coast. We’ll make it our own. I think that’s coming. You can see it especially when you talk to local officials; in the beginning they were so afraid, but now they’re like, “why hasn’t this marijuana business in my town opened yet? What’s taking so long?” I can’t wait to see what that looks like — it’s exciting to not know.
What do you see coming this year for marijuana in the US? Any predictions on how things will play out under President Biden?
ST: What happens with federal legalization obviously depends on what happens in Georgia and who controls the [US] Senate. In general, though, it’s hard to be excited about Biden. He was the only serious Democratic candidate who didn’t support legalization and seems to think putting drug users in mandatory treatment is a policy to be proud of. So I don’t have a lot of faith.
And based on what we saw recently with the MORE Act, I’m not sure today’s federal legalization bills fully reflect the lessons we’ve learned at the state level. I’d like to have a gold-standard state legalization program in place that we could point to first. Obviously it was historic for the [US] House to pass that bill and it would stop some of the arrests that have devastated people, but we’ve done too much work and come too far to just settle.
Speaking of federal policy, what’s next for you? Are you interested in shaping a possible federal legalization bill? Would you want to be the “cannabis czar” of another state? Or perhaps you want to move on to other substances? You’ve called for the legalization of all drugs, and voters in Oregon recently approved a broad drug decriminalization ballot initiative. That movement could be coming to Massachusetts soon.
ST: One thing I’m doing is working with my peers in other states to form a group called the Cannabis Regulators of Color Coalition. As the people who developed the first government programs to address the harms of the war on drugs and who learned the early lessons, we want to be available to share that expertise with other jurisdictions as they face the same questions.
Beyond that, I’m not sure. I’ve had some serious inquiries from other states [about serving as a marijuana regulator] but right now i’m not interested in re-living the past 3 years. I’m still very interested in drug policy, though, and I like to be on the cutting edge of whatever’s new in the way people look at drugs. I’m definitely looking at the decriminalization and medical use of psychedelics in other states and thinking about whether Massachusetts is ready for that.
Dan Adams can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Dan_Adams86.