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O'Brien apologizes for 'angst' and 'confusion' at July cannabis commission meeting

Newly appointed chair of the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission Shannon O'Brien.
Massachusetts Treasurer's Office
Newly appointed chair of the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission Shannon O'Brien.

The chairwoman of the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission apologized to her fellow commissioners Thursday for any "angst" or "confusion" she caused at their last meeting when she unexpectedly announced the agency's executive director was leaving and that the CCC was in "crisis."

Chairwoman Shannon O'Brien announced at a July 28 meeting that Executive Director Shawn Collins was planning to leave the agency, which he has run essentially since its inception, at the end of the year and that he wanted to take 10 weeks of family leave.

O'Brien said Collins had informed her in May that he planned to take his leave starting in September, but that it was "out of the blue" and she asked him to wait. She said Collins told her the day before the July 28 meeting that he would begin his leave the following Monday.

Commissioners appeared to be caught off guard by O'Brien's announcement in July, and Commissioner Nurys Camargo said "everyone's in shock" that the topic was brought up for discussion in the public meeting. O'Brien left that meeting early to travel.

During the commission's Thursday meeting — their first meeting since July 28 — O'Brien "sincerely" apologized for "any confusion I created."

"I know it caught you off guard, and I know that there was some concern about that. At the time, I believed I was alerting you to an important eventuality that I only discovered the day before," O'Brien said. "The CCC is already understaffed and overworked with several key positions unfilled for many months. We have a lot of work to do just to finish the work on municipal equity regulations. I was privy to information that I believed would place greater pressure on how we manage the commission, and I believed I had a statutory duty to address that situation."

O'Brien said the state's open meeting law prevented her from discussing business with fellow commissioners in private.

"I believed I was alerting my fellow commissioners to an urgent situation that we need to address to preserve the commission's interest. And I was doing it in a public forum as required by open meeting law," she said.

As of Thursday, a commission spokesperson said, Collins is out of the office but has not resigned.

"The Executive Director has not resigned and continues to serve in his current role; however, he is temporarily out of the office, and the agency does not discuss personnel matters publicly," the spokesperson said in a statement. "Consistent with standard procedures, when the Executive Director is absent, the Chief Operations Officer, Acting Chief People Officer, Chief of Investigations and Enforcement, and Chief Communications Officer are delegated to manage administrative affairs of the agency."

At the July 28 meeting, O'Brien suggested that she had already begun the process of searching for a new executive director. "Back in May, I had actually begun making some inquiries. Are there people out there who might necessarily want to apply for this position?" she said last month.

Addressing O'Brien's comments later in Thursday's meeting, Camargo said she was glad they were discussing "the elephant in the room."

"Our last meeting was, you know, it was disruptive and uncomfortable," she said.

Camargo added, "But I want to go back to Robert's Rules of Order. I want to remind folks that we have tools, we have a legal team."

O'Brien ended her statement to the commission Thursday with a call for the CCC to "do some sharp self reflection to determine if doing the same things we started doing in 2018 makes sense at this point in time." Collins was unanimously chosen in the fall of 2017 to lead the CCC as its inaugural executive director and the entire membership of the commission has turned over since.

The chairwoman said she wants to renew a focus on testing labs, lobby for investment into cannabis research, "act quickly" to make changes to the "original, highly restrictive regulations" passed during the first years of legalized marijuana in the state and "honestly determine" if the agency is meeting its social equity goals.

O'Brien said she hopes to increase the number of social equity entrepreneurs that have started operating from 59 current license holders to at least 75 by the end of next year.

"That's why I've called for us to take a look at what we're currently doing, and determine how we can move the ball forward," she said.

The chairwoman criticized the pace of the regulatory writing process after the state passed sweeping cannabis industry reforms last summer.

"A year ago we passed Chapter 180, or the Legislature passed Chapter 180. We still have not completed the regulatory writing process. We began late. The bill was passed in August. We were not convened to do this regulatory writing until about February of this year. And so one of the things I want to, you know, ask my fellow commissioners is, going forward I think that the next round of regulations just can't wait," O'Brien said.

Commissioner Ava Callender Concepcion said the chairwoman's comments "took away from the moment and from the work that so many people here have dedicated themselves to." O'Brien's announcement about Collins in July came in the middle of a discussion about major regulatory changes, stemming from the cannabis reform law passed last year.

"It showed a lack of consideration for the groundwork that was done by the prior iteration of the Commission," Concepcion said. "It showed a lack of consideration for all the work that went into not just the regulations, but the creation of Chapter 180, the passage of that law, and the work that went into drafting all of those policies and considerations that are now available to the public. And I wanted to take a step back to really give that moment the attention it deserves. Because I think that that was overshadowed unfortunately."

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