Done right, Massachusetts’ legal marijuana industry can become a leader in modeling a safe, regulated market. Done wrong, it can harm consumers, entrepreneurs, and taxpayers.
Given its importance, the Cannabis Control Commission’s infighting and dysfunction, culminating in the recent suspension of chair Shannon O’Brien, is disappointing and disheartening. The unstable leadership and apparent gulf between staff and commissioners trickles down to how it deals with businesses it licenses and threatens the health of an industry that has over 670 licensed businesses, employs around 50,000 people, and has generated $1 billion in tax revenue for Massachusetts.
Internal dissention also overshadows the work the commission is doing, which includes most recently finalizing regulations related to the host community agreements that govern the relations between marijuana businesses and the municipality where they operate, municipal social equity guidelines, and changes around who is suitable to work in the industry.
“We’ve functioned and continue to function in a way that’s really productive,” said acting commission chair Ava Callender Concepcion.
With the future employment of O’Brien and executive director Shawn Collins uncertain, the appointing and hiring authorities must clean house and eliminate any policies or personalities that have contributed to the problem. If the problem is structural, the Legislature should consider whether it needs to update the agency’s governance structure to ensure a clear chain of command.
The agency is independent, with commissioners appointed by the governor, attorney general, and treasurer. Its structure was modeled after the Massachusetts Gaming Commission, where the setup seems to work. But for the CCC, it has led to ambiguity. In theory, the five commissioners set policy and the staff, led by Collins, execute daily operations. But having the director report to five bosses — who themselves communicate mainly in public meetings — leads to a situation where Collins, who has no prior management experience, essentially runs the agency. Tensions and miscommunications between staff and commissioners have bubbled into the public eye.
When Lorna McMurrey died after working a shift at Trulieve’s Holyoke cannabis cultivation facility in January 2022, Trulieve informed commission staff immediately. But staff never told commissioners, who said they learned of McMurrey’s death months later from media reports. Commission staff say they seek to insulate commissioners from ongoing investigations to avoid conflicts of interest when commissioners vote on enforcement actions.
(On Sept. 20, 2023, the commission notified Trulieve that it intended to levy a fine of $502,500 because the company failed to follow workplace safety operating procedures; failed to process marijuana in a safe and sanitary manner; submitted untruthful information in an incident report; and other violations. The details were redacted in a copy of the letter provided to the Globe. Trulieve can appeal.)
Attorneys working for licensees say CCC staff members tell them not to communicate with commissioners.
Clarifying the governance structure has consumed agency time and money. Commissioners and staff have been in mediation since April 2022 “to establish a durable and effective governance structure” for the nascent agency. The commission paid $159,000 to Podziba Policy Mediation for 15 sessions, and commissioners and staff spent at least 80 hours on meetings and document reviews, according to the agency’s response to a public records request. They are still developing a governance charter.
The commission has also paid $93,400 to employment attorneys Morgan, Brown & Joy since 2022, according to a state spending database, for services related to human resources and labor law — including a job classification study, employee handbook, staff trainings, collective bargaining, and independent investigations. Sources with knowledge of the agency say human resource complaints are frequently filed by employees.
Agency leadership is in flux. Treasurer Deborah Goldberg, who appoints the commission chair, suspended, with pay, O’Brien earlier this month. Goldberg said staff members and a commissioner made “several serious allegations” about O’Brien’s behavior, investigated by an outside law firm, without releasing details. On Thursday, O’Brien sued Goldberg, arguing that the suspension was illegal and saying she was targeted by false accusations in an agency consumed with infighting.
The public deserves justification as to why Goldberg suspended her appointee and on what legal basis. The public needs to know whether the chair’s performance was flawed or whether the job is so challenging that even an experienced government manager like former state treasurer O’Brien is set up for failure. The commission’s first chair, Steven Hoffman, resigned abruptly months before his term ended. Four of five original commissioners left early without seeking reappointment.
Licensees have complained about agency operations. Business owners describe the agency as a “black box,” say there are delays in getting licenses approved and inspections scheduled, and say it is hard to get staff to answer questions.
MCR Labs accused CCC investigators of “harassment and intimidation” during a March inspection. An internal CCC investigation cleared inspectors of all charges except failing to use gloves.
An audit released Tuesday by Auditor Diana DiZoglio found that about 1 percent of products sold in marijuana shops in 2019 and 2020 were tested more than a year earlier, violating state regulations. It faulted the commission for lacking policies to ensure expired products are not sold. The agency said it made changes in response to the audit.
A recent letter from a bipartisan group of lawmakers to the chairs of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Cannabis Policy seeking a legislative oversight hearing demanded answers from the commission on O’Brien’s suspension; governance issues; licensing delays; “opaque, extended, and overly aggressive investigations”; an inadvertent release of cannabis employees’ personal information; and alleged retaliation against an independent journalist.
A letter responding to the legislators, signed by CCC chief communications officer Cedric Sinclair on Collins’s behalf, defended the agency’s performance. Sinclair said licensing delays have improved, and it now takes 14 days for the average application to be reviewed and six to eight weeks to schedule inspections.
Concepcion said “responsiveness is something we do take seriously.” Agency staff had been working remotely and this month began a hybrid work schedule, Concepcion said.
The CCC is charged with ensuring that marijuana establishments are run well and following the rules. It should start by getting its own house in order.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.