As part of Boston Cannabis Week, Morning Edition is having a series of conversations around cannabis policy, business and culture. Shaleen Title, an attorney and longtime drug policy activist, served on the state's Cannabis Control Commission from 2017 to 2020. She left to focus on running the Parabola Center, a nonprofit think tank that pushes for equity in cannabis policymaking. Title joined GBH’s Morning Edition hosts Paris Alston and Jeremy Siegel to talk about the current state of the industry. This transcript has been lightly edited.
Paris Alston: I want to start by reflecting on your time on the Cannabis Control Commission in Massachusetts. And I want to do that by playing a clip of you at the Freedom Rally in 2017, talking about how you explained your job to your son after he asked what you do.
Shaleen Title: I thought I'd take this opportunity to talk a little bit about that for a minute. So, there is a plant called cannabis. Some people call it marijuana. Our ancestors called it ganja. And some grownups like to use it the same way that some grownups like to use coffee or beer and some grownups don't.
Alston: So hearing that now and thinking about your time on the commission, what comes to mind for you?
Title: Well, it makes me so glad that we've come so far in five years, because I actually remember being terrified to just casually talk about cannabis with a child, because at the time it was still a little controversial. There were no stores open. The law had just passed. And now, five years later, I think that it's much more accepted and the stigma has lifted. And it's great to see us going in the right direction.
Jeremy Siegel: What exactly has changed, especially when it comes to policy, both broadly across America, but specifically here in Massachusetts?
Title: Well, I think the biggest thing is just that most people in Massachusetts now have a dispensary open in their area. They can go and visit it if they're curious and they're over 21, or they can just drive by. And people have seen that, you know, the sky hasn't fallen and it's pretty much a safe, smoothly functioning industry. And then for people who are really paying attention, if you care about racial justice and advocacy, we've seen that over the past five years the laws are becoming more robust. We're seeing more Black-owned businesses and small businesses opening. So it's great to be able to support them, too.
Alston: This summer, Massachusetts actually enacted new cannabis legislation that focused on equity. Among other things, it established a trust fund for those trying to set up marijuana businesses. It also is limiting cities and towns from charging those really high fees to host marijuana businesses there and incentivizing them to specifically host businesses that are run by people from disenfranchised communities. So what's your take on how the policy around the cannabis industry in the state has evolved ever since the law went into place?
Title: I am so grateful for the massive coalition that has been pushing for this new law because it started with the social equity businesses themselves. They were supposed to get special benefits for having been disproportionately targeted by the drug war, but there were a lot of obstacles in their way. And so they fought for five years. And little by little the commission came on board, the legislators came on board, and now a really great law has passed this summer. It's up to the new commissioners to really implement it and make sure that it rolls out in real life the same way that it is on paper.
Siegel: What do commissioners need to do to make sure this all happens as they implement the changes required by state law?
"People have seen that, you know, the sky hasn't fallen and it's pretty much a safe, smoothly functioning industry."-Shaleen Title
Title: The biggest authority that's been given to the commission is that they're now in charge of the rules for cities and towns to be equitable. So I think the most important thing for them is to be transparent about how they'll go about that process and continue to listen and take feedback from impacted communities. And then making it easy for cities and towns. I think when you provide model guidance, when you provide talking points so that people can talk to their city councilor, their local officials, that helps a lot. Because no one has time to really dig into this. But if you make it easy for them to show what they support, then we end up with policies that help consumers and small businesses.
Siegel: Do you think a national marijuana market is going to happen as things stand? I think 19 states have fully embraced marijuana legalization and there are 19 other states with medical marijuana programs. And, you know, loads of people do remain staunchly opposed to marijuana legalization. Do you think that really will happen at the federal level?
Title: It absolutely will happen. But it's a question of when and how. And the way it could happen could actually be a public health disaster, depending on who's allowed to dominate the market and who writes the rules. So the time to start thinking about that is now. So I actually started a nonprofit think tank called Parabola Center, and that is what we focus on, not whether legalization will happen at the federal level, but how.
Alston: I want to zero back in on the commission here in Massachusetts for a second, because at the time that you served, Shaleen, you and former cannabis control Chair Steve Hoffman, who stepped down earlier this year, were the only members of the commission who had not worked in government. And now the commission has just gotten a new chair, Shannon O'Brien, who does come from a government background, making that the case for all five commissioners. You said before that your and Chairman Hoffman's outsider perspective allowed you to do things like scrutinize decisions and ask questions that maybe other commissioners hadn't thought of. Do you think that's going to be an issue for the commission going forward under this new leadership?
Title: I'll be honest, I am a little nervous about that. Because I think it doesn't matter who the people are, but just having those different backgrounds where you had a couple of leaders who hadn't been in government who could ask, hey, why are we doing it this way? Or, you know, could explain it to the public the way that non-government people can understand — I think that made a big difference. And so now having five commissioners who all come from government in one way or the other, you might lose that. So I do think it's important to continue to ask questions and really to put pressure on the commission to keep being transparent, to keep meeting with members of the public and making sure that we can all influence how this new industry rolls out.
Alston: One thing I also wanted to ask you about, Shaleen, since you helped me get in touch with a number of people who have been affected by marijuana drug law enforcement, who we'll hear from later this week. As the industry evolves and as we look ahead to things like national legalization, how would you like to see them be considered?
Title: I think they should be at the very center of discussion because we want to see more outdoor cultivation, craft farming, Black-owned businesses. And now we have a number of people who just through integrity and grit as well as good policy, have made it through. And so they have the best perspective on how to get more. So we want to listen to them. We want to visit their businesses and really make sure they continue to be at the center.