Massachusetts lawmakers want outside eyes to oversee Cannabis Control Commission

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Citing an intolerable level of frustration with the inner workings of the Cannabis Control Commission, the agency designated to oversee marijuana businesses in Massachusetts, a bi-partisan and bi-cameral group of legislators have sent a letter requesting independent oversight of the agency.

The letter, addressed to the co-chairs of the Joint Committee on Cannabis Policy, Sen. Adam Gomez, D-Springfield, and Rep. Daniel Donahue, D-Worcester, requests the committee create an independent oversight unit within the commission, or failing that, within the office of the inspector general.

The author of the letter, Sen. Michael Moore, D-Millbury, has also filed legislation that would serve the same purpose. Several of his colleagues, including Representatives Michael Soter, R-Bellingham and Donald Berthiaume, R-Spencer, as well as Senators Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester and Michael Brady, D-Brockton, have also signed the document.

“It’s an internal governance issue,” Moore said of the disarray at the commission.

That disarray is apparent to many: Monday, after the reported suspension with pay of the chairperson Shannon O'Brien by state Treasurer Deborah Goldberg, the Commission dithered for 40 minutes in its attempt to appoint an acting chairperson. The four remaining commissioners on the body, Nurys Camargo, Ava Callender Concepcion, Kimberly Roy and Bruce Stebbins were deadlocked but finally appointed Concepcion to serve as acting chair for the next three meetings as the body discusses the regulatory changes mandated by law.

"The commission has the power and authority to designate an acting chair," said Comargo as she nominated Concepcion to the position. Concepcion and Camargo both decried any delays on in "getting on with the business at hand," to ensure that businesses stay open, employees get paid. They also suggested that the commissions' internal struggles no be played out in public.

Lack of transparency, accountability helped prompt the request

Moore believes the commission has ceased to be accountable to taxpayers and is adamant that the body needs both oversight and an overhaul. His suggested first step is to create a unit in the inspector general’s office to oversee the workings of the body, review its practices, policies and procedures and to make recommendations based on the review.

The issues, as Moore relates them:

  • Suspension of Chair O’Brien: State Treasurer Deborah Goldberg suspended commission Chair Shannon O’Brien, according to media reports. The Treasurer’s Office has so far declined to explain the suspension or name an interim chair.

  • Ongoing governance issues: The commission has been engaged in a series of closed-door mediation sessions over its governance structure since April 2022.

  • Licensing delays: Opaque and lengthy licensing processes have become a frequent complaint to legislators’ offices.

  • Extended and overly aggressive investigations: Investigators from the commission have been criticized for operating in an overly aggressive and unproductive manner during site visits, with little communication to business owners about their investigation status or findings.

  • Inadvertent records release: In spring 2023, the commission allegedly shared a document containing the names, addresses, phone numbers, emails and other sensitive personal information of every cannabis worker, active or inactive, in Massachusetts.

  • Alleged retaliation against an independent journalist: Commission officials allegedly cited the content of a journalist’s testimony before the Joint Committee on Cannabis Policy as part of the justification for stripping the journalist of their press credentials.

  • Sex offenders as retail and delivery operator agents: Following the passage of legislation in 2022, the commission has proposed allowing registered sex offenders to become retail and delivery operators in the cannabis industry, positions that will allow them access to sensitive customer information.

In his letter, Moore notes the commission spends countless hours in executive session on a regular basis. While the specific reason for excluding the public have yet to be revealed, as well as the outcomes of those session, the stated reason is to participate “in mediation between the Commissioners and staff leadership, for purpose of finding common ground and obtaining buy-in from all parties, in its efforts to establish a durable and effective governance structure.”

Thursday, Sept. 14, the commission entered into session for three hours, only to exit and then sanction an unnamed reporter for their alleged racist tropes in reporting on the regulatory body. The reporting, they declared, served to undermine and misrepresent the Cannabis Control Commission. The body, will “take a definitive stand and challenge the disinformation.”

In his letter, Moore noted that the commission has unilaterally retaliated against an independent journalist, going so far as to strip the reporter of credentials and access to commission meetings and resources. In its reasoning, the commission declared the reporter “did not uphold journalistic ethics and standards that members of the media are expected to conform to.”

Cannabis Control Commission Chair Shannon O'Brien, was suspended from her role Friday
Cannabis Control Commission Chair Shannon O'Brien, was suspended from her role Friday

Embattled Commission chairperson Shannon O’Brien, whose choice to lead the commission was criticized due to her past ties to the industry, did not attend the session. At one time, O’Brien had an ownership stake in a cultivation company with an application before the regulatory body. At her appointment, O'Brien revealed her past affiliations and asked for clarification from the state ethics board. She was cleared of any conflict of interest.

Moore did not criticize her appointment, noting that a new industry, transitioning from illegal to legal, needs to be regulated by persons with expertise and experience in the field.

Cannabis Control Commissioner Shannon O'Brien suspended from regulatory body

In a new development Friday, the state Treasurer’s Office announced O'Brien had been suspended from her position. The office sent her an e-mail about the suspension Thursday. O’Brien was appointed to the leadership role by Treasurer Deb Goldberg late in 2022. O'Brien had served as state treasurer from 1999 through 2003. She is a former state representative, serving from 1987 to 1993 and later as a senator from 1993 to 1995. In 2002, she was Democratic nominee for governor, losing to Republican Mitt Romney.

In a prepared statement O'Brien released Friday in response to Moore's letter, O’Brien said she accepted the job as chair with her eyes wide open, knowing that the body was dysfunctional.

“For over 2 years, it has become well known that the Commission is an agency riddled with internal discord, lack of accountability and infighting,” O’Brien said. “Because of a lack of strong leadership, the CCC has been failing to meet the needs of a rapidly expanding legal cannabis industry. Further, and maybe more troubling, it was clear that the agency was failing in one of its central responsibilities: promoting access to a lucrative industry for persons who had been disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs, as well as other targeted groups such as persons of color, LGBTQ, disabled, women and veterans.”

Major Bloom owner Ulysses Youngblood.
Major Bloom owner Ulysses Youngblood.

Ulysses Youngblood, owner of Major Bloom, a social equity business in Worcester, said the commission failed in its essential mission: To promote equity in the industry.

“The law passed based on equity,” Youngblood said. “And here, no one is talking about equity.”

While his interactions with the commission have not stood out as particularly challenging, he did note that the body could have enacted certain changes to regulations to ease the financial burden on equity businesses.

Equity businesses, applicants, hampered by regulations, lack of alacrity in approval process

“I’m talking about the two-driver rule,” Youngblood said, explaining that the state’s requirement that there be two people in a marijuana delivery vehicle at all times is “bleeding us.” Delivery services are set aside solely for equity applicants; those of color, women and applicants who have been negatively impacted by the U.S. “war on drugs” policy.

“All it would take is a commission vote,” Youngblood said. He appreciates the senator’s strong stand on calling for oversight but decried that no one is talking about equity.

Even as she stepped into the role, O’Brien realized she was facing a difficult job, but was assured by Goldberg that she was up to the task and would serve as the change agent who could make improvements within the commission.

“I have been vocal in my criticism of the CCC’s failure to help more Social Equity applicants gain licensure and enjoy the benefits of this billion dollar a year industry,” O’Brien said, noting that of the 550 cannabis licenses approved by the commission, less than 60 have been issued to social equity applicants and even fewer have been issued to persons of color.

Dan Delaney of the Delaney Policy Group and executive director of the Association of Cannabis Testing Laboratories of Massachusetts, has been in the marijuana business since it was legalized for medical use in 2013.

In July, Delaney testified before the Joint Committee on Cannabis Policy, describing an interaction between a marijuana testing laboratory and commission inspectors. At the hearing, he called them more like enforcement agents rather than inspectors of a regulatory body. The staff at MCR Labs in Framingham felt “threatened.”

Despite claims that the body would investigate the incident, the eventual response was that the incident had been looked into and that there was no inappropriate behavior by the inspectors.

“How can the commission investigate itself?” Delaney wondered. “They said they were right all along; they didn’t even write a report.”

At one time, medical marijuana was under the oversight of the state Department of Public Health.

“When the DPH oversaw medical marijuana, there were resources and a train of accountability,” Delaney said. Now, all conversations begin and end with Shawn Collins, its executive director. “Once it was passed to a free-standing agency, there was no accountability to anyone,” not the state, not the taxpayers.

Moore believes issues stem from dissention between agency and commissioners

And, according to Moore, the body does not believe it is accountable to the commissioners themselves.

“It seems the conflict is between the commissioners and the staff; and the mediation is an attempt to determine what authority the commissioners have over the staff,” Moore said. In his letter, he demands accountability: How much is mediation costing taxpayers? (One source pegged the bill at $300,000.)

Moore notes that the state’s Gaming Commission has a similar commissioner-led structure, yet there is no reported dissention between the staff and commissioners.

Connecticut-native Ulysses Youngblood, president of Major Bloom in Massachusetts, shows marijuana stored in his office. It is processed and packaged for recreational sales at the store under heightened security.
Connecticut-native Ulysses Youngblood, president of Major Bloom in Massachusetts, shows marijuana stored in his office. It is processed and packaged for recreational sales at the store under heightened security.

In addition to issues described in the letter, Sen. Moore’s office has received reports of a hostile work environment at the commission. His office has referred these complaints to the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination and the state auditor.

Insiders noted that the lack of oversight and accountability has also meant additional wasted funds: Travel and meal reimbursement between Jan. 2022 and Sept. 2023 has topped $80,000. A $35,000 “cannabis wall mural” was commissioned in 2022 and sits in the Worcester headquarters which has, until recently, remained mostly empty for three years. There are also allegations of a culture of gender discrimination and misogyny including men who violate human resources policies are protected and women are not protected and even fired for less egregious behavior. This has left the commission open to additional and costly litigation.

State Auditor Diana DiZoglio has indicated that she spoke with the senator and has "expressed that she will absolutely be working with him to help address the concerns raised to increase accountability."

In his missive, Moore also takes the commission to task for licensing delays.

Processing delays, host community agreement, community impact fees, all issues that need to be reviewed by an outside auditor

“Delay in the licensure process has become a frequent complaint regarding the CCC,” Moore noted adding that the lack of transparency and communication between the commission and applicants offers no timeline on when to expect to complete the process. “An extended opaque licensing process only favors prospective licenses with the financial resources to sustain themselves through the licensing process – which undermines equity goals.”

Moore askes:

  • What oversight are the commissioners exercising over the processing of licenses?

  • How are these delays impacting the equity goals of the commission?

  • Why is the commission unable to give even a rough or estimated timeframe to prospective applicants?

  • What steps is the commission taking to reduce delays as part of the licensing process?

  • What is the recourse for a prospective licensee faced with undue delay as part of the application process?

Soter, who has repeatedly filed a measure that would allow veterans to use referral letters from Veterans Affairs' medical providers to access a medical marijuana card, a process that has a yearly renewal requirement, is also frustrated at the lack of movement within the commission.

Bellingham Rep. Soter also expressed frustration at slow pace of approvals

Currently, because marijuana is listed as a schedule 1 drug by the Drug Enforcement Administration, doctors employed by Veterans Affairs, a federal agency, are prohibited from issuing medical marijuana cards, forcing veterans to seek the cards from private practitioners. Those doctors’ costs can add up; sometimes up to $300 a year.

Iraq war veteran Stephen Mandile, left, an Uxbridge selectman, discusses expanding access to medical marijuana with bill proponent Rep. Michael Soter, R-Bellingham, at a special hearing on the bill Thursday, June 22.
Iraq war veteran Stephen Mandile, left, an Uxbridge selectman, discusses expanding access to medical marijuana with bill proponent Rep. Michael Soter, R-Bellingham, at a special hearing on the bill Thursday, June 22.

“We desperately need to get this done,” Soter said. “We need to extend these benefits to our veterans and save them money. Cannabis could prove to be better than opioids, without the same addictiveness. When people use it to alleviate pain, there is a different response from the body.”

He agrees the commission needs a complete overhaul, “inside and out. It’s moving way too slow,” Soter said.

“I am absolutely frustrated,” Soter said. “This is a multi-million business; we need to get someone inside.”

Moore is also frustrated by the commission’s lack of responsiveness to an issue he has brought before the body several times in the past: The issue of excluding registered sex offenders from public-facing employment positions in the industry as delivery drivers or sales staff at dispensaries.

He said that, “recent regulatory updates proposed by the CCC create the risk that individuals required to register as sex offenders will be able to obtain registration as retail or delivery operator agents.”

When marijuana was legalized for adult recreational use in 2017, the commission’s position was that employees with access to customers and their personal data, driver’s licenses and home addresses should be held to a higher suitability standard. Recent regulatory changes opened the door to allow employment of people who may have a criminal record, specifically those adjudicated on marijuana possession charges. However, Moore said, the commission has the right, and duty, to include restrictions that bar adjudicated sex offenders from public-facing positions in the industry.

The Massachusetts cannabis business surpassed $5 billion in cumulative sales this year. And while industry insiders report falling prices and a glut in supply, the sector is still strong.

Five commissioners oversee the regulatory agency: O’Brien, who was just suspended of her duties, Nurys Camargo, Ava Callender Concepcion, Kimberly Roy and Bruce Stebbins. Neither Moore nor Soter see the turmoil in the agency as being generated by the leadership.

“All five are great,” Soter said, adding that the former commissioners have all performed admirably.

But, he said, change needs to happen to bring transparency and accountability to the regulatory body. That change could start, as Moore has requested, with an oversight component. It could also include subpoenas, Soter said.

This article originally appeared on Telegram & Gazette: Lawmakers cite problems in the agency overseeing pot, needs oversight