Just over a month into her tenure as the state’s new top marijuana regulator, former Massachusetts treasurer Shannon O’Brien is mired in an awkward controversy over her previous ownership of a pot company.
The state Cannabis Control Commission on Thursday took the highly unusual step of “remanding” a license application from Greenfield Greenery, a proposed outdoor marijuana-growing operation in Greenfield that until last December counted O’Brien as its chief executive and 50 percent co-owner.
The 4-0 vote — O’Brien recused herself — essentially puts the application on hold pending an investigation by commission staffers into who really owns and controls the firm.
In a tense discussion before the vote, the agency’s other commissioners expressed concerns about whether the company had notified the commission, as required, about O’Brien’s departure and the shift of control over its operations to new executives.
O’Brien said she made a clean break with Greenfield Greenery in December 2021, and a renewal of the firm’s provisional license in February omitted her name. But that change was apparently never communicated to, or approved by, the marijuana agency, which has strict regulations around who may own a marijuana company and which mandates the disclosure of any changes. (The rules, which the commission strengthened in 2019, are also intended to prevent “hidden” investors from sidestepping background checks or secretly controlling more licenses than allowed by law.)
The commissioners also noted the agency had yet to finish reviewing a separate application Greenfield Greenery submitted in May seeking to add a new investor and said they would not feel comfortable approving the license until there is a clearer picture of its ownership.
“How is this all possible without a change-of-ownership [application] in front of us?” Commissioner Nurys Camargo asked agency staffers at the meeting. “I don’t feel like I have all the information yet to vote on this license.”
Camargo and Commissioner Ava Concepcion also pressed staffers about whether O’Brien’s involvement in the license application constituted a violation of the agency’s code of ethics.
Speaking to reporters after the meeting, O’Brien refused to answer questions about whether she was responsible as the company’s co-owner and chief executive for its failure to notify regulators about the change, citing the ongoing staff review.
“I think that the other commissioners did a fabulous job today being thoughtful [and] dealing with a number of very delicate issues,” O’Brien said.
She said she “gave up all ownership and control” of the firm last year, and said it was “not transparent” to her how the company handled the matter after December.
Randy Facey, the firm’s current owner, said Greenfield Greenery represents an attempt to save his struggling family dairy farm by supplementing its income with revenue from growing cannabis. He said O’Brien did a “great job helping us through a horrendous process” as the outfit sought a provisional marijuana license in 2021, and added he didn’t believe her departure triggered a required disclosure to the cannabis commission.
“This should be a non-issue,” he said in an interview. “We were ready to have an outdoor grow this season and the [commission] destroyed that. ...They’re pushing me toward bankruptcy.”
Facey said O’Brien “just walked away and signed all her shares over to us — it’s a simple thing that they’ve made into something we can’t understand.”
The flap over her involvement with Greenfield Greenery has only intensified criticism of O’Brien by advocates as an insider pick by current Treasurer Deborah Goldberg, whose office is responsible for choosing the commission’s chair. Camargo and Concepcion also applied for the position, but lost to O’Brien, as did marijuana industry veterans Aaron Goines and Kim Napoli. All but O’Brien are people of color, another factor angering activists fighting for the industry to be more diverse.
“This troubling series of events calls into question the integrity of Treasurer Goldberg’s appointment of Chair O’Brien,” said Grant Smith, a cannabis advocate and student at New England Law who on Wednesday organized a protest of O’Brien at the State House. “Nothing short of a new appointment process, rooted in a respect for equity and fairness, is an acceptable end result.”
Goldberg is standing by her choice. In a statement Thursday, a spokesman for the treasurer touted O’Brien’s “experience within the industry” and said her “lengthy career in both the public and private sectors provided her with the qualifications for the appointment, above the other candidates.” He also stressed Goldberg’s commitment to equity and inclusion.
Even as they criticized O’Brien, Smith and other advocates praised the commission’s other members for pumping the brakes on Greenfield Greenery’s application.
“It was a good demonstration of one of the original tenets of the commission: that ethical standards apply to everyone and people with power don’t get special treatment,” said former commissioner Shaleen Title, who now runs the Parabola Center think tank.
The scuffle over O’Brien’s previous industry involvement comes as the commission is preparing to embark on a complex regulation-writing process, required to implement the new cannabis industry law signed by Governor Charlie Baker in August. At Thursday’s meeting, Camargo and Concepcion insinuated agency staff had left them in the dark about the details of that process, pressing publicly for more details.