Treasurer Deborah B. Goldberg is Massachusetts’ top recreational marijuana regulator, with unilateral power to hire and fire the officials who will oversee the new billion-dollar industry.
But probably not for long.
The Legislature appears likely to strip Goldberg of her authority, perhaps creating an independent marijuana oversight commission instead, according to several Beacon Hill officials familiar with the discussions.
And Representative Mark J. Cusack, House chairman of the committee overhauling the voter-passed pot law, on Monday floated the possibility that a “new regulatory structure, such as an independent commission,” might work better for Massachusetts than the current plan.
“I respectfully ask that the $300,000 currently in reserve be held until the committee makes our recommendation,” the Democrat wrote to Governor Charlie Baker’s budget chief.
Goldberg has publicly argued against taking away her power, saying her office has already spent substantial time preparing to oversee the industry and preparing an infrastructure to protect public health and safety. She warns that changes in oversight of the industry could delay when pot shops open.
Goldberg, a Democrat elected in 2014, said in a statement Monday: “We are operating under the law and will continue to do so until such time as the law changes.”
Advocates who wrote the marijuana law have said that making adjustments now would contradict the will of the voters. They also argue that Goldberg’s office, which oversees the agency that regulates alcohol, is the sensible place to house the new cannabis agency.
But proponents of the effort to strip much of the authority from Goldberg argue that one of the main reasons to change the regulatory structure would be to dilute the authority of any single elected official. That would thus minimize the influence the industry might have over regulators.
The marijuana legalization law passed by voters creates a three-person Cannabis Control Commission, with sole regulatory authority over the new industry.
The law says the commissioners shall be appointed by the state treasurer, who also has authority to remove them for neglect of duty, misconduct, or malfeasance in office.
The agency is poised to decide on everything from restrictions on advertising to measures to keep the drug out of the hands of children to testing for contaminants. Many of those choices will affect the bottom lines of the pot shops, cultivation facilities, infused-product manufacturers, and testing outfits expected to spring up across the state.
But some legislators worry that the law puts too much power in one elected official — because Goldberg would appoint the whole commission.
They cite the Massachusetts Gaming Commission, which oversees the state’s growing casino gambling industry, as a model for what might replace the marijuana panel.
The gambling commission is composed of five people, not three. That brings a broader range of expertise and gives each individual less power. And they are appointed by different people: One commissioner is appointed by the governor, one by the attorney general, one by the treasurer, and two by a vote of those three elected officials.
Gaming Commission chairman Stephen Crosby was asked to testify before the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Marijuana Policy last month.
In an interview Monday, Crosby said he has no opinion on how pot ought to be regulated but sang the praises of the way the gambling law set his commission up.
“The independence of the commission includes many features — we are appointed by multiple authorities; there are five of us; my term is a seven-year term,” he said.
“Also, our budget is an assessment right on the licensees rather than having to go to the Legislature, which is an incredible investment in our independence.”
Gaming Commission members are full-time paid employees.
Voters in seven other states have legalized recreational marijuana, and each has a unique structure for regulating the industry, but there are many similarities among them.
“Most of them put the licensing, regulation, and enforcement in a single department, and most states pair oversight of recreational marijuana with liquor,” said Andrew Freedman, who served as Colorado’s pot czar for three years and now runs a cannabis consulting firm focused on good government oversight and responsible industry practices.
In Colorado, for instance, regulation and enforcement are conducted by the state’s Department of Revenue, which also oversees liquor and gambling.
In Washington state, a three-person Liquor and Cannabis Board, appointed by the governor, oversees the industries.
Rick Garza, director of the Washington state agency, said it made sense for retail marijuana oversight to be housed the same agency that already had years of experience regulating alcohol.
While there was a learning curve, Garza said, there is enough similarity between cannabis and liquor that the agency had a leg up.
“We already were about 300 strong as far as an agency regulating alcohol, and [the Legislature] gave us additional resources,” he said.
With almost four years of experience overseeing cannabis in Washington, Garza said, “I think the systems we have in place here work quite well.”
In November, 1.8 million Massachusetts voters legalized recreational marijuana at the ballot box. Growing, buying, possessing, and using limited quantities of the drug became legal in December. Retail sales were supposed to begin by January 2018, but the Legislature changed the law and made the expected open date six months later.
Advocates expressed worry that taking authority away from Goldberg would push the opening of retail shops further into the future.
“The treasurer’s office is the appropriate place for the Cannabis Control Commission because both this treasurer, and past treasurers, have shown a very high level of regulatory ability with the Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission, which is the most analogous agency,” said Jim Borghesani, who helped lead the ballot effort.
“Our fear is that moving the Cannabis Control Commission now, after considerable work has taken place in the treasurer’s office, will result in additional delays,” he said.
Asked Monday whether he would oppose the Legislature changing the pot oversight structure, potentially taking away all or some of Goldberg’s authority, Governor Charlie Baker demurred.
But he notably did not voice any opposition to that possibility.