Massachusetts lawmakers consider proposal to place ailing marijuana regulator under receivership
Massachusetts lawmakers consider proposal to place ailing marijuana regulator under receivership

“I would say it’s the nuclear option, which is why we heard today that this has never been done in any government agency.”

Beacon Hill lawmakers expressed frustration with dysfunction at the Cannabis Control Commission, but were skeptical of the “nuclear option” they sought in response to Inspector General Jeffrey Shapiro’s advice to place the agency under receivership.

“As someone who has been in government for a long time, I want to stress that receivership is a really big deal,” said Rep. Rob Consalvo (D) of Boston, a co-chair of the Joint Committee on Public Policy. “I would say it’s the nuclear option, which is why we heard today that this has never been done before by a state agency.”

Democratic Rep. Daniel Donahue of Worcester, the committee’s chairman, said he was not surprised by Shapiro’s proposal. “This letter, while its timing was surprising, was not a shock and reflects the concerns we have heard from other quarters,” he said.

Republican Rep. Michael Soter of Bellingham was even more explicit. “This is a $7 billion operation,” he said. “My problem is that we’re running things like the Wild West down there, I’m afraid.”

Both Consalvo and Donahue pressed Shapiro to explain why he chose bankruptcy rather than other solutions to the Cannabis Control Commission’s problems. Consalvo even floated alternative options — hiring an outside person to review the personnel issues or bringing in a human resources expert as a consultant to the agency.

In his testimony and in his answers to questions from parliamentarians, Shapiro argued that there is currently an unclear chain of command in the Commission, which requires immediate correction in addition to a long-term legislative solution to address what he sees as existing ambiguities in key leadership positions.

“(The problem) has to do primarily with the commission’s charter, which is inconsistent and does not provide clear guidance on who is responsible for running the agency,” Shapiro said in his testimony.

Shapiro pointed to a lack of clarity in the division of authority between the commission’s chairman and executive director. He did not blame any particular person, but said the lack of clarity in the charter was at the root of the commission’s problems.

“I respectfully propose that a receiver be appointed this session to steady the ship while the legislature takes its time next session,” Shapiro said. “Time is of the essence. The longer the CCC flounders, the less certainty and stability there is for applicants and licensees, patients and caregivers, investors, consumers and host communities.”

Even Shapiro acknowledged that recommending that a government agency be placed under receivership was unusual.

“It’s certainly a big decision to come out there and make that recommendation. It’s highly unusual and these are highly unusual circumstances,” Shapiro said. “It goes back to the structural aspect of who’s in charge and what roles there are.”

In his testimony, Shapiro pointed out that the last two chairs of the commission have resigned under unclear circumstances – the first chair, Steven Hoffman, resigned without giving a reason five months before the end of his term, and current chair, Shannon O’Brien, was suspended by the treasurer as early as September 2023. This led to several commissioners arguing over who should take the position of acting chair.

O’Brien is still suspended and has attended closed meetings with the treasurer to defend herself against allegations of racial insensitivity and workplace toxicity, which O’Brien denies. She is now awaiting the treasurer’s decision on whether to remove her from her position.

In addition, the CCC has a high turnover rate, with many vacancies, particularly in leadership positions. Shapiro said the commission has more than 20 vacancies, six of which are top positions.

This article first appeared on CommonWealth Beacon and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.

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