State Treasurer Deborah Goldberg suspended Shannon O’Brien as the state’s top cannabis regulator, removing the former treasurer and one-time Democratic nominee for governor only a year after Goldberg tapped O’Brien for the position.
O’Brien’s suspension throws into doubt whether she will return to lead the Cannabis Control Commission at a crucial time for the agency. It’s on the verge of rewriting the regulations governing the state’s cannabis industry, and is expected to convene Monday in a bid to finalize a host of changes.
O’Brien was suspended with pay from her $181,722-a-year post on Thursday, according to Andrew Napolitano, a Goldberg spokesperson. O’Brien was not present at a commission meeting that happened that same day.
Napolitano declined to address why O’Brien was removed from her position, saying he couldn’t comment further on a “personnel matter.” Goldberg, a Brookline Democrat, is responsible for choosing the marijuana agency’s chair.
In an interview, O’Brien said she was not formally given a reason for her suspension and said she’d had “a conversation [with Goldberg] about whether I could continue” in the role.
“I said I believed that, consistent with the statute, I was doing my job,” O’Brien said.
In a separate written statement, O’Brien said Goldberg turned to her last year to improve an agency that had become “riddled with internal discord, lack of accountability and infighting.”
“I went in knowing I had a difficult job to do, but I was told by the Treasurer that in spite of many talented people applying for this position, I was the right change agent who could make improvements within the Commission,” O’Brien said. She said that a “toxic internal environment” has hobbled the agency’s mission, including its aim to help people of color gain a foothold in the industry, “and I am hopeful needed change can be mandated by the Legislature.”
A spokesperson for the Cannabis Control Commission referred questions about O’Brien to Goldberg’s office.
Goldberg has not named an interim chair in O’Brien’s place, leaving the commission with just four members and no designated leader.
A commissioner can be removed from the panel under certain circumstances, including if he or she is convicted of a felony or is “guilty of malfeasance in office,” according to state law. It also allows for removal for more amorphous reasons, such as if a commissioner commits “gross misconduct,“ is “unable to discharge the powers” of the office, or “substantially neglects” duties.
Before a commissioner is removed, the law mandates he or she be provided the reason for removal in writing and be given “an opportunity to be heard.”
The development comes at an uneasy time for the commission. The body is trying to finalize a series of regulatory changes, including its oversight of host community agreements, and has seen drama surround the status of its longtime executive director and how long he might remain in his role.
News of O’Brien’s suspension unsettled those in the industry who have pressed the commission to reshape its regulations after the Legislature last year approved sweeping changes to the state’s marijuana laws.
“In a world where only 54 percent of the voters voted for this back in 2016, we don’t want controversy around the agency that is trying to regulate and oversee what is now a $5 billion industry,” said one industry leader, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation. “We’d like the agency to behave itself and appropriately oversee the cannabis economy and marketplace here.”
O’Brien’s tenure began a year ago, when Goldberg turned to her to lead the commission.
But weeks after her appointment, the commission took the highly unusual step of “remanding” a license application — essentially putting it on hold amid investigation — from Greenfield Greenery, a proposed outdoor marijuana-growing operation in Greenfield. Until the previous December, Greenfield Greenery had counted O’Brien as its chief executive and 50 percent co-owner.
The commission eventually approved a final license for Greenfield Greenery this year, with O’Brien recusing herself from the vote, after the agency’s enforcement team filed a report that essentially cleared O’Brien of violating disclosure regulations in the episode. But it put staffers in the awkward position of investigating their own boss and clouded O’Brien’s early days as chair.
Then in July, O’Brien surprised her fellow commissioners when she announced that the commission’s executive director, Shawn Collins, was planning to leave the agency. She also described the commission as being “in crisis.”
O’Brien later apologized for “any confusion I created.” Collins, the only executive director the commission has ever had, told the State House News Service this month that he remains in his position while acknowledging that he doesn’t “know what the future holds for me.”
O’Brien, whose family includes several former state officials, is a trailblazer in Massachusetts politics. She was elected to the Legislature in 1986 and stayed until January 1995, first as a state representative and later as a state senator.
She was later elected state treasurer in 1998, becoming the first woman elected to statewide office on a “solo ticket” (Evelyn Murphy was previously elected lieutenant governor in 1986 on a joint ticket with Governor Michael Dukakis).
O’Brien served as treasurer until 2002, when she ran as the Democratic nominee for governor but lost to Mitt Romney.