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Head of Massachusetts cannabis regulator defends work on  billion cannabis industry

Former Cannabis Control Commission chairwoman Shannon O’Brien leaves Suffolk Superior Court after appearing for a hearing. (Matt Stone/Boston Herald)

The agency that regulates the marijuana industry is not “rudderless,” according to its acting chair, and continues to operate despite claims that it needs a receiver to function.

“If you’ve been paying attention, you know we’re working. Everyone is always on board. We continue to push policy forward,” Cannabis Control Commission Acting Chair Ava Callender Concepcion told the Herald in a one-on-one interview.

The legal marijuana industry in Massachusetts generated $7 billion in revenue last year, and $1 billion of that went back to the Bay State in the form of taxes and fees.

Less than a decade old, the industry employs more than 15,000 licensed sales representatives across the state and is responsible for creating thousands more jobs in hundreds of recreational marijuana dispensaries and medical programs that the commission has reviewed and approved in a lengthy and public process.

The CCC meets regularly and in public, with meetings usually held openly with a full agenda. Only rarely, and on the advice of legal counsel, do the Commissioners retreat to a closed session to conduct their business behind closed doors.

These meetings produced the legal rules and regulations for a booming industry that the commissioners say is both an enviable and a model for other states seeking to establish a similarly successful system.

Given all that, Concepcion told the Herald she was somewhat surprised to learn that the state’s inspector general – whose job is to uncover waste, fraud and abuse within the state’s sprawling government – was investigating the hard-working commission and found it to be “leaderless” and in dire need of a receiver to continue day-to-day operations.

According to Inspector General Jeffrey Shapiro, problems at the commission, which is tasked with regulating the industry that remains federally banned, were already evident long before former chairwoman Shannon O’Brien was summarily removed from her post and suspended – with her salary retained – pending an investigation into her allegedly racially motivated comments and her rumored poor working relationship with then-CEO Shawn Collins.

Since O’Brien’s suspension last year, which has still not been lifted, the agency has been operating under Concepcion’s acting leadership and without a full-time executive director. From the inspector general’s perspective, according to a statement he made to lawmakers, it looks as though things are moving but no one is at the helm.

“The Cannabis Control Commission is a leaderless agency with no clear direction on who is responsible for conducting its day-to-day operations,” Shapiro said. “Today, I am calling on legislative leaders to take immediate action to appoint a receiver and quickly address the fundamental issues in the enabling legislation so that the agency can function properly, maintain its planned revenue streams, and provide clarity and certainty to its stakeholders.”

He pointed out that the Commission had spent “considerable time and money” over two years drafting a governance charter and that it was no closer to finalising that document.

According to Concepcion, work on drafting the governance charter requested by the Inspector General has been underway since the Commission’s inception.

The process, which the IG’s report says failed to produce a charter despite its $160,000 cost, began under former Chairman Steven Hoffman and continued under the interim chairman who replaced him and then during Chairman O’Brien’s brief tenure.

Complaining about spending $160,000 over several years, especially given the agency’s $23 million annual budget and the turnover at the top of the commission, seems very strange, Concepcion said, stressing that $2.5 million of the budget was not spent last year and was returned to the state.

“From the outside, you don’t know what’s going on,” Concepcion said. “You just have to understand that we’re doing our job.”

She said the charter would be made available to the public at the commission’s July meeting, after months of Commission staff trying to adapt to the changing leadership landscape.

Concepcion, who was appointed by then-Attorney General Maura Healey, said she did not feel “leaderless” in her work. The acting chair said she would support any changes to the industry that lawmakers deem necessary – which is her privilege – but at the moment she did not see the need or legal authority for the appointment of a receiver.

While discussions about the direction of the commission are still ongoing, Concepcion said CCC staff will continue their work and continue to focus intensively on the state’s most important cash crop.

“When I say we’re doing our job and the industry is doing well, I mean we’re bringing in a billion dollars a year to the Commonwealth,” she said. “Massachusetts has always been an example. I think it’s important to keep the bigger picture in mind here.”

Jeff Hopes (right) of Plymouth exhales marijuana smoke while celebrating 420, the unofficial cannabis holiday, with friends on Boston Common on April 20. (Photo by Paul Connors/Media News Group/Boston Herald)

Photo by Paul Connors/Boston Herald

Jeff Hopes (right) of Plymouth exhales marijuana smoke while celebrating 420, the unofficial cannabis holiday, with friends on Boston Common on April 20. (Photo by Paul Connors/Media News Group/Boston Herald)

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