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OPINION

The ugly fight at the Cannabis Control Commission

It has less to do with racism and more to do with a commission that’s high on power tripping and low on the brand of leadership needed to address today’s cannabis industry challenges.

Shannon O'Brien in Suffolk Superior Court on Dec. 4.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

Who’s the racist?

Is it Shannon O’Brien, who has been suspended from her job as chair of the Cannabis Control Commission, for, among other alleged reasons, repeating the alleged words of a Black developer who said a particular project would affect “Black, brown, and yellow people”?

Or is it state Treasurer Deborah Goldberg? According to an affidavit filed by O’Brien, during a phone call in September 2022, Goldberg “indicated that she was annoyed” that Commissioner Nurys Camargo, who is of Dominican-Colombian descent, and her allies “had pressured her to appoint Commissioner Camargo as chair and further told me she never would have appointed Commissioner Camargo as chair of the CCC.”

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Goldberg suspended O’Brien in September after an investigator’s report concluded that O’Brien made “racially, ethnically, and culturally insensitive statements,” including “public statements that could reasonably be perceived as creating the impression that … diverse candidates were not qualified for the CCC role.”

By that standard, Goldberg could be accused of a similar offense — which shows how easy it is today to call someone a racist and, with that terrible designation, forever ruin their reputation and job prospects.

My takeaway from this ugly fight: It has less to do with racism and more to do with a commission that’s high on power tripping and low on the kind of mature leadership needed to address today’s very real cannabis industry challenges. As the Globe has reported, marijuana prices are falling, the result of too much competition from too many retail stores now open in Massachusetts. Meanwhile, as this industry reckoning comes due, state regulators have been called out for poor business practices. At a hearing in July, executives from testing facilities were given three minutes to testify before the Joint Committee on Cannabis Policy. “Three minutes is not nearly enough time to describe the waste, fraud, and abuse that we have seen and documented in our interactions with the CCC,” said Michael Kahn, who heads up MCR Labs in Framingham, according to the State House News Service.

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No wonder Goldberg - who appoints the chair and shares responsibility for the appointment of two other commission members with the governor and attorney general -wants to talk about racism. It’s better than talking about waste, fraud, and abuse.

As O’Brien tells it, Goldberg put her in charge of the five-member commission in August 2022 to shake things up. O’Brien, a former state treasurer and gubernatorial candidate, may have shaken too hard — or perhaps was simply the wrong person for this task.

She made some awkward remarks and failed at getting everyone on the same team, although that might have been impossible from the start. After all, she was dealing with at least one commissioner — Camargo — who wanted her job. In her Oct. 4 letter to O’Brien, Goldberg also said that an investigator found that all witnesses who were interviewed about her, “unanimously experienced multiple negative interactions, problematic behavior, and professionally inappropriate conduct.”

That sounds bad, for sure. On the other hand, O’Brien wouldn’t be the first change agent to run into resistance from people who don’t want change.

O’Brien was also said to have told an investigator looking into complaints about her that, “my only blunt instrument to fix this place is to fire” the executive director Shawn Collins, “bring people back to the office, and create a culture of respect.” O’Brien also acknowledged she made such statements regularly in the presence of staff members.

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Fine, fire her for hurting people’s feelings with too much candor. Why go nuclear with racism charges that are less than clear cut? For example, the investigator looked into a complaint from Camargo that O’Brien once commented that while she didn’t know state Senator Lydia Edwards — who is Black — Camargo probably did. To Camargo, that implied “all people of color must know each other” — a wrong assumption, O’Brien said.

As far as using the term “Black, brown and yellow,” O’Brien acknowledged that she did repeat words that were allegedly first said by someone else. In an email response to me, she said the context was her meetings with “several leading persons from business and nonprofit worlds who are focused on helping entrepreneurs of color gain access to capital.”

She said she told the investigator, “I felt terrible if I had offended anyone, but I was excited that I might lead an effort to help social equity applicants gain access to capital so they might become licensed businesses.” She denied ever saying “I guess you’re not allowed to say ‘yellow’ anymore,” or “I should have cleaned it up. It’s difficult to know how to say the right thing.”

According to O’Brien, Goldberg twice complained to her about the pressure she was getting from people to appoint Camargo as chair and allegedly told O’Brien she probably wouldn’t vote for Camargo when her reappointment was up.

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Asked about O’Brien’s recollections, Andrew Napolitano, a spokesperson for Goldberg, said the treasurer could not comment on pending litigation. So, after condemning O’Brien as a racist, Goldberg now gets to duck accountability for her own alleged remarks. How fair is that?

Correction: My column of Dec. 5 mistakenly attributed a quote to Rich Parr, the senior research director at the MassINC Polling Group. It should have been attributed to a poll respondent.


Joan Vennochi is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at joan.vennochi@globe.com. Follow her @joan_vennochi.