As we head into the fall, it’s only natural to start looking back at the current year to assess how it’s been going so far. No matter how 2023 has gone for you, I can assure you that you’ve had a better year than the state’s Cannabis Control Commission (CCC), the agency tasked with governing the Bay State’s five billion dollar weed industry.
Don’t believe me? Well, here’s a quick recap of just a few of the things that have gone haywire over at the CCC this year.
Public Records Fiasco
Despite the fact that dozens of Massachusetts cannabis companies face some sort of allegations of rule breaking or other bad behavior, the commission isn’t exactly forthcoming about what particular accusations they are actually looking into. This means that myself and the other half-dozen or so people who actually follow this wonky weed stuff closely often rely on things like public records requests to force the agency to be at least a little bit transparent.
These requests can be quite the adventure, as I found out firsthand back in March. Responding to a public records request regarding one of the many active investigations the Commission finds itself conducting into cannabis companies, the agency’s staff accidentally sent myself and Grant Smith Ellis (another canna-journalist) a spreadsheet containing the names, addresses, and other personal information of every single employee who has ever worked for a medical marijuana dispensary in Massachusetts.
We agreed to delete the file, even though we were probably under no legal obligation to do so. Did my cooperation win me any extra favors with the commission’s press department? Reader, I can assure you it did not.
Inability to Pick “Low-Hanging Fruit”
The initial batch of commissioners at the CCC had the tough job of writing regulations to govern an industry that didn’t exist yet. Considering four of five of the original commissioners voted against marijuana legalization when it was on the ballot in 2016, they were bound to introduce some rules that leaned way too much towards the side of caution.
Perhaps one of the best examples of this is the now infamous “two-driver rule,” a provision that requires two employees to be in a vehicle that is transporting cannabis. Operators of delivery businesses and other license types that rely on moving weed from place to place have long lamented this rule, saying it adds a ton of costs to operating their business.
After years of inaction, it finally seemed like there might be progress on this issue, as the commissioners suggested that axing the two-driver rule was “low-hanging fruit,” ie., a policy change that had the support of all five members and would be fairly easy to implement.
Yet at the most recent CCC meeting, it seemed like everyone had suddenly changed their minds on the issue, as multiple commissioners said that the two-driver rule would have to be studied further before they could make any changes. Cannabis delivery company business owners tuning into the meeting expecting to finally hear some good news were devastated to see the commission suddenly kicking the can down the road; they’re now worried that the agency’s sudden about-face on this issue may lead to some of these companies going out of business.
The two-driver rule isn’t the only piece of “low-hanging fruit” that the commission has failed to pluck. In fact, the CCC hasn’t tackled a single item that the commissioners originally put on the fruit list, suggesting the gears of the commission’s bureaucracy are more gunked up than that weed grinder that you haven’t cleaned in years.
This industry moves fast. If it takes the commission months — or even years — to make relatively simple policy changes, we can probably expect more chaos ahead.
CCC Staff Behaving Badly?
The commissioners themselves aren’t the only ones who have been in the spotlight as of late, as the agency’s staff were recently accused of being disrespectful and borderline abusive during an unannounced inspection of a cannabis testing lab back in March.
In a letter to the CCC’s commissioners, MCR Labs CEO Michael Kahn said that the agency’s inspectors ambushed the company’s transportation drivers in the lab’s parking lot, shouting at them and forcing them to open cases full of weed right out in the open. He went on to say that the inspectors physically menanced the employees and ignored a number of safety and security procedures.
(Disclosure: I formerly worked at MCR Labs from 2020-2021, although I never had any interactions with CCC staff while working there.)
Kahn claims this is all in retaliation for his outspokenness regarding what he and many others see as the commission’s unwillingness to crack down on other labs who are encouraging cannabis growers to use their services by manipulating tests to give their clients favorable results, a phenomenon known in the industry as lab shopping. This manipulation can give products more impressive THC numbers, or even cover up incidents of mold or heavy metal contamination.
This was hardly the first accusation that I’ve heard of agency staff misbehaving, but it was one of the first times these accusations had spilled out into the public.
Don’t worry though, the CCC’s Chair, Shannon O’Brien, announced at the most recent meeting that the CCC looked into the claims of their own improper behavior and cleared themselves of any wrongdoing. How reassuring!
Commission Chair Pulls the Metaphorical Fire Alarm
Speaking of O’Brien, it’s fair to say her time at the commission hasn’t exactly been smooth sailing. Her appointment was a bit overshadowed by the fact that she had previously done consulting work for two different cannabis companies, something that wasn’t disclosed to the public until after she was already announced as the new Chair.
If O’Brien was already in the hot seat, you could argue that it got even hotter last month when she suddenly announced during a commission meeting that the CCC’s Executive Director Shawn Collins told her in a private conversation that he would be beginning family leave the following week, and plans to resign at the end of that ten weeks of leave.
She then blurted out that she felt that the Commission was in crisis and that the director’s resignation would throw the agency into “chaos.”
O’Brien claimed she made the disclosure because she felt that Collins’ departure would have an immense impact on the CCC’s ability to function, but her fellow commissioners seemed pretty horrified that she had taken it upon herself to publicly announce the director’s upcoming family leave and resignation without his consent, particularly considering the announcement came in the middle of a discussion about regulatory changes and was not listed on the meeting’s agenda.
During a statement made at the next meeting, O’Brien apologized for any angst that her comments caused but defended her decision to make the announcement.
She then quickly transitioned into a portion of the statement that felt less like an apology and more like a stump speech, outlining a number of things at the commission that she feels are in need of a change.
Of course, the O’Brien isn’t free from responsibility for the way things have been going. September marks the one year anniversary of her appointment, and she’s eventually going to have to bear the brunt of the responsibility for the chaos and crisis at the CCC.
I’m hardly the only one to notice the calamity that is happening at the state’s Cannabis Control Commission, and now the Massachusetts legislature is considering a bill to place an independent auditor within the agency. This auditor would have free reign to look at any agency files and to speak with any employee, hopefully allowing them to get to the bottom of whatever the heck is happening over at the CCC’s offices in Union Station.