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She’s back: Shannon O’Brien rejoins Mass. government as top marijuana regulator

Former treasurer, gubernatorial candidate appointed to chair Cannabis Control Commission

Shannon O'Brien attended a women in politics forum at Faneuil Hall in Boston in 2017.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Shannon O’Brien, the former Massachusetts treasurer and Democratic gubernatorial candidate, is returning to state government after a nearly 20-year absence — this time as chair of the Cannabis Control Commission.

Current state Treasurer Deborah Goldberg, whose office is responsible for choosing the marijuana agency’s leader, announced the appointment Tuesday.

O’Brien will take the reins of the commission from Sarah Kim, a top Goldberg deputy who temporarily held the seat after the April resignation of inaugural chair Steve Hoffman. (Hoffman has since returned to the private sector, joining the board of a medical marijuana software startup.) Officials said O’Brien is set to be sworn in Thursday, which is also the fifth anniversary of the commission.

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“I am honored to serve as Treasurer Goldberg’s appointed chair of the Cannabis Control Commission, and excited to return to state service in this important role,” O’Brien said in a statement. “I look forward to working with the other commissioners, agency staff, and stakeholders to ensure that this industry is well regulated while enhancing economic benefits for the citizens of the Commonwealth.”

O’Brien’s appointment comes at a critical time for the commission, which is about to embark on the implementation of significant reforms to the state’s marijuana laws passed earlier this summer by the Legislature and signed into law by Governor Charlie Baker. Lawmakers left important details of the changes up to the commission, including a crackdown on controversial municipal fees charged to pot operators and regulations for cannabis cafés.

The agency must also work with economic officials in Baker’s administration to set up a new fund for so-called equity applicants — essentially, entrepreneurs from Black and brown communities most affected by the past prohibition of cannabis. Such startups have struggled to gain traction in the regulated marijuana market, despite a promise in state law that they would share in the spoils of legalization after decades of racially disproportionate drug arrests, thanks in part to an onerous local approval process and lack of traditional financing options.

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O’Brien acknowledged those looming challenges in her statement.

“While the law was intended to create new economic opportunities for diverse communities and those previously harmed by harsh drug laws, this promise has not been fully achieved, leaving many aspiring equity entrepreneurs with a very challenging pathway to achieve the success that larger corporate interests have enjoyed,” she said. “I am eager to get to work implementing some of the positive changes written into the recent reform law passed by the Legislature, including new access to capital for entrepreneurs, on-site consumption, and enhanced oversight of Host Community Agreements.”

Goldberg said in a statement she was confident O’Brien’s “financial background, experience in corporate governance, executive management, and business development, combined with outstanding leadership skills and an acute knowledge of the legislative process, will help the Massachusetts cannabis industry be fairly regulated, equitable, and successful.”

To take the new job, O’Brien will leave her current role as the chair of Goldberg’s semiofficial “Baby Bonds Task Force,” convened to study the possibility of creating savings accounts for babies born to impoverished Massachusetts families.

O’Brien, whose family includes several former state officials, was elected to the Legislature in 1986 and stayed until January 1995, first as a state representative and later as a state senator.

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In 1994, she lost a campaign for treasurer, but ultimately won the job in 1998, becoming the first woman elected to statewide office on a “solo ticket” (Evelyn Murphy was previously elected lieutenant governor in 1987 on a joint ticket with Governor Michael Dukakis). O’Brien served as treasurer until 2002, when Mitt Romney defeated her in a spirited gubernatorial campaign. After leaving office, she worked stints as a television commentator, the chief executive of the Girl Scouts of Greater Boston, and chair of a pension reform board in New York before founding her own consultancy.

Cannabis advocates expressed skepticism about O’Brien, saying she seemed nominally qualified for the role but noting her appointment cements a lineup of “insider” commissioners with previous government experience. They had hoped at least one seat on the five-member board would go to someone with cannabis advocacy or industry experience.

“There is clearly an unwillingness on behalf of the appointing authorities to put anyone who has working, experiential knowledge of the cannabis industry into a position of regulatory authority,” said Kim Napoli, a longtime attorney, advocate, and executive who also interviewed for the chair job along with activist and entrepreneur Aaron Goines and current Commissioner Nurys Camargo. “They’re choosing people who are going to toe the line and make things simple for them, not make waves. There are really important issues facing marijuana operators, disenfranchised communities, and patients, and it’s troubling that the makeup of the commission doesn’t accurately reflect those concerns.”

Camargo did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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Shaleen Title, an attorney and advocate who served as one of the agency’s inaugural commissioners from 2017 to 2020, echoed Napoli’s criticism, saying she and Hoffman brought valuable outside perspective.

“Unsurprisingly, we were more willing to scrutinize and question business as usual, which led to productive debates and better policy for consumers and patients,” Title said. “I’m disappointed and concerned that the appointing authorities haven’t chosen any current commissioners who bring that outside perspective, or any specific cannabis expertise.”


Dan Adams can be reached at daniel.adams@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Dan_Adams86.