WORCESTER — The sudden suspension last week of the state’s top cannabis regulator has thrown the agency tasked with overseeing marijuana sales into turmoil, even as it’s poised this fall to wrap up complex new rules governing the $5 billion industry.
At a tense meeting of the Cannabis Control Commission Monday — the first since state Treasurer Deborah Goldberg suspended agency chair Shannon O’Brien — commissioners bickered over who, or even whether, they should appoint someone to temporarily replace O’Brien ahead of a November deadline to overhaul rules outlining who can work in the industry and the fees marijuana companies must pay to municipalities.
“I know we’re in a tough situation,” said Commissioner Nurys Camargo. “We’re in a pickle.”
And it could get even tougher soon after a bipartisan group of state lawmakers on Monday called for a legislative oversight hearing to examine the agency, arguing it has been an opaque and ill-functioning entity since its creation six years ago.
“The Cannabis Control Commission has faced what sometimes feels like an endless stream of scandals,” state Senator Michael O. Moore, a Millbury Democrat, said in a statement. “The public deserves some accountability on why these issues have proven so hard to stamp out, and what long-term changes the agency is making to get its work done with more transparency and efficiency.”
Moore and four other lawmakers, including Senate minority leader Bruce E. Tarr, sent a letter Monday to the House and Senate chairs of the Legislature’s committee on cannabis policy, asking them to convene a hearing, as well as advance legislation that would establish an independent internal audit unit within the commission that would fall under the authority of the state inspector general.
The lawmakers said the agency has conducted “overly aggressive, unproductive, and untimely” investigations, to the point that investigators have been accused of “operating akin to criminal investigators and not like regulators.”
Upheaval at the agency hit a new level on Friday, when Goldberg’s office confirmed the Democrat had suspended O’Brien as the state’s top cannabis regulator, removing the former treasurer and one-time Democratic nominee for governor only a year into O’Brien’s tenure as commission chair.
A spokesperson for Goldberg declined to say what prompted the decision, and O’Brien told The Boston Globe she was not formally given a reason for her suspension. O’Brien said she had “a conversation [with Goldberg] about whether I could continue” in the role.
But Monday morning, when four remaining members of the commission convened at Worcester’s Union Station to kick off a three-day meeting, tensions were high.
The group faces a November deadline, mandated by the Legislature, to issue rules that cover everything from allowing people with criminal records to work in the industry to overseeing “community impact fees” marijuana companies must pay to municipalities. They’ve released draft rules and held a public hearing earlier this month, but now must go line-by-line through the proposals and vote on final versions.
“We’re at a critical point,” said Commissioner Kimberly Roy at the start of Monday’s meeting. “At lot of folks are wanting to see what we do today.”
Complicating matters: O’Brien has not yet resigned and is still technically the commission’s chair. That prompted agency attorneys to advise commissioners they needed to appoint a temporary chairperson or any rules the commission issued could face a legal challenge.
Even that proved challenging.
A motion to name Roy, who also serves as secretary, as acting chair, deadlocked on a two-to-two vote. So did a motion to name Commissioner Ava Callender Concepcion as temporary chair. Finally, the group found a compromise, naming Concepcion as acting chairwoman but only until Wednesday, when the agency finishes reviewing the draft rules.
That means the commission will, once again, be leaderless once the agency finishes its meetings this week.
And little light was shed on why, exactly, O’Brien was suspended, or how long that suspension might last. She did not return a message seeking comment Monday.
At one point during the meeting, Roy insisted on reading into the record the agency’s ethical guidelines that require commissioners to step down if they had a conflict of interest — which puzzled her fellow commissioners.
Ethical questions have shadowed the board since early in O’Brien’s tenure when the commission took the 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 license was later issued and the commission’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.
And Moore, the Millbury Democrat, said he also had received reports of what he called a “hostile work environment at the CCC,” though he declined to detail the complaints beyond saying he received two calls and that “people feel threatened by statements that have been made.” His office said he referred the allegations to the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination and the state auditor’s office.
Overall, Moore said, the commission’s turmoil seems to be hurting the state’s marijuana industry.
“It just seems to be dysfunctional,” he said. “Put yourself in the situation: If you’re seeing all the media and all the negative interactions between the Cannabis Control Commission and retailers . . . would you really jump into that industry?”
And that, Camargo said, is all the more reason why the commission needs to focus on its work and finish updating the rules that govern marijuana sales in Massachusetts, no matter who’s leading the effort.
“This is an awkward moment. It is also awkward that we have to have this conversation in public,” she said. “We’re shaken up a little now. But we need to govern ourselves. There’s so much at stake with this commission.”