Imagine you’ve spent your entire adult life throwing rocks at a castle, protesting its powerful inhabitants, and telling anyone who will listen what an unjust system the castle represents. Then, one day, the doors unexpectedly open: “Fine,” a voice says, “you run the place.”
That’s the position in which Shaleen Title finds herself. The 34-year-old marijuana attorney, legalization activist, and entrepreneur was appointed in September as a commissioner of the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission, the new state agency charged with the once-unthinkable task of creating and regulating a legal recreational pot industry. She recently spoke about making the transition from activism to officialdom, her upbringing in Chicago, and more.
1. Title says the intellectual foundation of her life’s work was poured in high school.
“I attended a public boarding school for gifted students in math and science. Instead of a set curriculum, we studied what were interested in. They didn’t even refer to it as a school — they called it a ‘pioneering educational community,’ which I was thought was hilarious at the time. But it taught me that I didn’t need to learn everything from other people, that you could change anything you wanted to.”
2. Title was introduced to activism by Danielle Schumacher, her roommate in high school and at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign with whom she later cofounded a marijuana industry staffing firm.
“Danielle wanted to start a chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy. You needed two people to start a chapter, so I said ‘fine.’ At one of our first meetings, someone from the ACLU came and said, ‘if you’re black in Illinois, you’re 57 times more likely than a white person to be incarcerated on a drug offense.’ That number just blew me away. It became our mission to change that.”
3. Earnest and firmly convinced of the righteousness of her cause, Title expected to make quick progress — until her first-ever attempt at lobbying.
“I thought I’d just show up with the data and they’d say, ‘oh, you’re right!” and pass a medical marijuana law. So I walk into this state legislator’s office and she and I are both wearing a pink turtleneck and black pants. I tried to crack a joke — ‘hah, look at our outfits!’ She just looked at me; it was so awkward. I gave her a stack of papers, but of course, in a lobbying meeting no one’s going to sit and read them right there. She said, ‘you know, I read other things besides just what people hand me.’ Ouch. It was a wake-up call.”
4. Title’s parents, who immigrated to the United States from India in the 1970s, never discouraged her activism. But they didn’t always understand it.
“It was like, ‘we trust you, but why this issue?’ But over time, along with the rest of American society, they changed. I would tell them about how, in Indian culture, cannabis has been used practically since the beginning of history. The internet helped, too. My mom would call and say, ‘what is this article you’re posting on Facebook?’ and we’d talk about it.
5. Title admits the transition from activist to public official has been challenging.
“I’m still figuring that out. I’m erring on the side of not saying anything that might be questioned, but at the same time trying to be authentic. I know a lot of people are looking to me. I believe we can make the marijuana industry not just any industry, but a better one, and that we can make this a really open and transparent agency that takes people’s needs into account.”