Metro

State House aide tapped to run cannabis agency

The Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission’s members said they chose Shawn Collins because of his experience politicking within the State House and his deep knowledge of the state’s marijuana laws.
Jim Davis/Globe Staff
The Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission’s members said they chose Shawn Collins because of his experience politicking within the State House and his deep knowledge of the state’s marijuana laws.

The Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission on Wednesday voted unanimously to hire Shawn Collins, a top deputy of state Treasurer Deborah Goldberg, as its first executive director.

The five commissioners of the new marijuana regulation agency picked Collins over two other candidates: Norman Birenbaum, the director of Rhode Island’s medical marijuana program, and Erin Bradley, executive director of the Children’s League of Massachusetts.

The commissioners said they chose Collins because of his experience in state politics and his deep understanding of the state’s marijuana laws.

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“He knows this subject cold,” said cannabis commission chairman Steve Hoffman, adding that the hire “gives me even greater confidence than I already had that we’re going to create and regulate a great industry that’s going to be beneficial to all the citizens of the state.”

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The precise terms of Collins’s employment have yet to be negotiated, but the cannabis commission has tentatively set the job’s salary at $150,000.

After years in state government as a legislative aide and later as Goldberg’s legislative director, Collins is well-known and generally well-liked on Beacon Hill, where he earned a reputation as a hard-working policy expert who can recite regulations from memory and readily grasps the nuances of multifaceted issues.

Collins will need to lean on his State House relationships almost immediately — the nascent cannabis commission urgently needs millions of dollars in additional funding from the Legislature to buy pot-tracking technology, hire staff, and rent office space.

Under the language of the Question 4 ballot initiative that legalized marijuana, the state treasurer would have controlled the cannabis commission; Collins led Goldberg’s effort to prepare to regulate the drug, visiting other states with legal cannabis markets, studying the Massachusetts law, meeting with dispensary owners and activists, and drafting various policy documents.

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But in July, the Legislature rewrote the law and instead created an independent five-member body in the mold of the state Gaming Commission. Collins’s preparatory work was turned over to the cannabis commission, which Hoffman said put the agency “miles and miles ahead of where we would be otherwise” and also gave Collins a leg up in the executive director hunt.

While Collins’s previous work — negotiating with state lawmakers, lobbyists, and activists to craft laws and policies — took place largely behind the scenes, he is now at the center of a white-hot and very public debate over how to structure and regulate the forthcoming recreational marijuana market.

In one ear, Collins will hear activists clamoring for a fast and broad rollout of dispensaries, plus strong rules mandating the inclusion of local entrepreneurs, women, people of color, veterans, and those previously arrested for marijuana crimes; in the other will be municipal officials and public health advocates who remain skeptical about commercializing cannabis and want the industry to be introduced slowly and under tight restrictions.

Collins, who will eventually oversee a staff of about 40, is also charged with meeting an exceptionally tight timeline, with draft regulations due in early January, and licenses scheduled to be awarded next spring.

Recreational marijuana sales are due to begin July 1, 2018.

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“I am grateful for the unanimous support of the commission,” Collins said in a statement. “This is an exciting opportunity to establish the agency that will develop a brand new industry in the Commonwealth. There is plenty of work to be done and I can’t wait to get started.”

The advocacy group that sponsored the Question 4 ballot measure praised the pick, saying Collins’s familiarity with the law will help the pot agency meet its challenging deadlines.

“He’s an excellent choice,” said Will Luzier, who managed the legalization campaign for the Marijuana Policy Project. “His grasp of the issue . . . means that he’s not going to have a steep learning curve.”

Some marijuana activists had questioned Collins’s candidacy, saying the commission should have looked further afield than the State House. Hoffman, however, rejected any suggestion of inside dealing, saying the commission combed through dozens of résumés and interviewed the final three candidates in public earlier this week.

“There was nothing ‘orchestrated’ here,” Hoffman said. “We all came to this conclusion independently through a very open and transparent process.”

Dan Adams can be reached at daniel.adams@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Dan_Adams86.