April 20, is an unofficially official holiday for cannabis enthusiasts everywhere. And with cannabis having surpassed cranberries as the top crop in Massachusetts last fall, the legal industry here just keeps on budding. That hasn't come without challenges, especially when it comes to ensuring equity in the industry. But with a new cannabis reform law on the books and a new Cannabis Control Commission chair in place, there is an opportunity to turn over a new leaf, so to speak. Shannon O'Brien, chairperson of the Cannabis Control Commission, joined Morning Edition co-host Paris Alston to discuss the state of the industry. This transcript has been lightly edited.
Paris Alston: You are making your Morning Edition debut since you stepped into the role last fall. How have things been going, and what are your goals for the commission and the industry?
Shannon O'Brien: Well, you know, this has been a steep learning curve for me. I've been the state treasurer, so I've run a large state organization with a $75 million budget. And we ran the lottery, so obviously, you know, running something that had previously been illegal but then has been incorporated into cities and towns and neighborhoods across Massachusetts. So there's a little bit of overlap there. But this is something very new to me, a sort of independent agency. And I'm trying to sort of take an assessment. I have spent the last seven months meeting with stakeholders, assessing whether or not we have resources in the right place to meet our mission. And front and center, one of the first things that I think we need to do is after five years of legalized recreational cannabis, how do we keep the promise of promoting equity to those people who have been disproportionately harmed by the war on drugs? We've had 900 people go through our social equity program. We've only had about 50 people who've gone through those programs or who qualify under that program who've actually become licensees.
Now, there are many other ways that you can expand economic empowerment to people through the benefits of bringing a billion-dollar industry into Massachusetts. But that's my first priority: How do we now assess where we are, How do we make sure that as the market is becoming saturated, how do we make sure that we still maintain that promise? And then how do we rethink what equity is? And my other true priority is research. Massachusetts is the hub of education, of health care, of biotech. We have great researchers here like Staci Gruber. And we need to leverage that. So I think that figuring out, truly, what some therapies are, getting research-based proof of of how cannabis can help people. And then finally, making sure that we look at how do we regulate our industry? Can we reduce the red tape to help businesses continue to thrive in Massachusetts without leaving out public safety? We want to maintain public safety and reduce regulation. That's a mouthful.
Alston: Certainly a lot to get done there. And we know that the cannabis reform law that's in place is intended to help accomplish some of those things. Where is the commission on reviewing and implementing those new regulations?
O'Brien: So right now we have three different working groups. One group is looking at social consumption. Some persons may live in public housing, where cannabis is still illegal. Those people cannot enjoy the benefits or the entertainment, if you will, of utilizing cannabis either medicinally or recreationally. So ensuring that everyone has equal access to that social consumption is something that one of our groups is looking at, and determining how they can work with municipalities to make sure that, one, we create that access to the product, but two, we maintain a public health and safety. Another group is looking at the host community agreements. The HCAs are literally contracts that the communities signed with the licensees that say we will allow you to come to our town. We'll go through that process. And this is what we expect in return for allowing you to come to our community. And then finally, the group that I'm on, which is social equity, is: How do we continue to incorporate that equity lens into granting those licenses to cannabis applicants?
Alston: And I'm assuming putting some onus on the host communities as well to make those things a little more accessible for those social equity applicants.
O'Brien: Yes, exactly. My particular group, we've engaged a number of different stakeholders. We had an opportunity to speak with a delightful young woman, Payton Shubrick, who is woman of color living out in Springfield. And Payton, frankly, isn't even our so-called social equity program participant. But hearing some of the barriers that she went through to try to stand up her business — and frankly, she has been incredibly successful, has a wonderful retail store out in Springfield.
But one of the stories that we had heard is that some communities — and again, communities are looking for revenue. It's understandable that they would want a successful and profitable cannabis business in their town or city. But one of the requirements or one of the ways they measured a successful applicant is an entity that had previous experience in the regulated cannabis market. Well, that obviously tilts the playing field towards what they call MSOs, multistate operators, those sort of deep-pocketed companies that invest in cannabis across the country.
From my perspective, having been a state rep, state senator and state treasurer promoting economic opportunity in Massachusetts, I think that this industry should be tilted not towards the big guys, but the smaller entrepreneurs, both persons from different economic empowerment groups, and all groups, smaller entrepreneurs. So looking at what those barriers have been in communities and making sure that we don't tilt that against those equity applicants, and frankly create incentives for communities to not only welcome, but to embrace economic empowerment applicants.
"I think that this industry should be tilted not towards the big guys, but the smaller entrepreneurs."-Shannon O'Brien, chairperson of the Cannabis Control Commission
Alston: So, Shannon, I know that this is a really pivotal time for the commission. At the same time, there's not a whole lot of trust and confidence in the commission right now, considering some internal things that have been going on, as well as the fact that with those social equity applicants, there's still a small percentage of those who have been able to go through and set up shop. So how do you turn things around and regain that trust?
O'Brien: Well, first of all, I'll talk about economic empowerment. And this is something that's very important to me. And the word that I have been using when I talk to staff and when I talk to people on the outside is 'impact.' We spend a lot of money, millions of dollars, running people through these programs. And I want to make sure that the programs that we're running actually match the needs of the people who are seeking either to get into the cannabis industry or find other options for people to enjoy the economic benefits of this industry. So I want us to do basically a 360. What are we doing? Is it impactful? And with the sort of window — the market is saturating, there are fewer and fewer opportunities to get into this market. And businesses are going out of business. They can't compete. Prices are plummeting. So we need to sort of look at both, one, where are we in the market? How can we help our businesses? And how can we sort of rethink what we do for social equity applicants?