Members of the state's Cannabis Control Commission said they were "in a pickle” and “in uncharted territory” Monday after their chair was suspended from her post, while a group of state lawmakers called for their fellow legislators to step in and bring stability to the agency.
State Treasurer Deb Goldberg last week suspended CCC Chair Shannon O'Brien from her job, a year after tapping her for a five-year term. Goldberg's office described the suspension as a "personnel matter," and a spokesman said Friday he could not provide further details.
With it unknown when or if O'Brien will return to her job, the four other commissioners started a Monday meeting with more than a half hour of tense back-and-forth over who should serve as acting chair, and for how long.
"This is an awkward moment that we're all in. There's a pink elephant in the room, right, and it's awkward," Commissioner Nurys Camargo said. "And it's also awkward that we have to have this conversation in public, that we can't go into executive session and that we're at where we're at, but the reality of this — and I think you all know this — whether we're a little fuzzled or shaken up a little bit right now, we need to be able to govern ourselves."
After two deadlocked votes, the commission unanimously agreed to appoint Ava Callender Concepcion as acting chair for its three planned days of meetings this week. The commission is reviewing — and hopes to vote by Wednesday on — updated regulations governing the state's marijuana industry.
Commissioner Bruce Stebbins first nominated Commissioner Kimberly Roy, the CCC's secretary, as acting chair.
Roy said she'd acted as chair six times before, when O'Brien has been absent, and that attempting to assign the acting chair role to another commissioner "flies in the face of statute and precedent." Camargo nominated Concepcion as chair, describing the CCC as both "in a pickle" and at a "critical point" in its work.
Camargo initially suggested Concepcion step into the leadership role "until a chairperson arrives, whatever that means, or comes back." Ultimately, the group approved a motion from Stebbins that pared that timeframe back to cover the regulatory work of the next three days.
"Our status, and I think the chair's status, is still up in the air," Stebbins said.
At one point during the discussion, Roy began reading from the CCC's code of ethics.
"It applies because we're sort of in uncharted territory here," Roy said when Concepcion asked why she was reading the ethics rules. "We're going to take a critical vote, and I think it's a friendly reminder."
While the CCC was meeting in its Worcester headquarters, a group of five state lawmakers sent a letter to their colleagues who chair the Cannabis Policy Committee, Sen. Adam Gomez and Rep. Daniel Donahue, asking them to hold an oversight hearing or advance a bill that would create an independent oversight unit for the CCC.
"Since its creation in 2017, The Cannabis Control Commission has faced what sometimes feels like an endless stream of scandals," Sen. Michael Moore, a Millbury Democrat, said in a statement. "The public deserves some accountability on why these issues have proven so hard to stamp out, and what long-term changes the agency is making to get its work done with more transparency and efficiency."
Along with Moore, the letter is signed by Brockton Democrat Sen. Michael Brady, Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr of Gloucester, and Republican Reps. Donald Berthiaume of Spencer and Michael Soter of Bellingham. Berthiaume is the ranking minority member of the Cannabis Policy Committee, and Soter also serves on that panel.
The letter cited what Moore's office called "seven primary points of dysfunction," including O'Brien's suspension, "ongoing governance issues," and licensing delays.
"The legislature needs to ensure that statutory requirements are complied with and examine what steps are needed to finally bring stability to the CCC," the five lawmakers wrote.
Among other questions, they asked the committee to examine the statutory basis for the suspension, the circumstances leading up to it, how long O'Brien will be suspended, and what legislative changes might "improve the situation at the CCC."
In a Friday statement, O'Brien said that Goldberg brought her in as change agent after the CCC's previous chair resigned.
"For over 2 years, it has become well known that the Commission is an agency riddled with internal discord, lack of accountability and infighting," O'Brien said. "Because of a lack of strong leadership, the CCC has been failing to meet the needs of a rapidly expanding legal cannabis industry. Further, and maybe more troubling, it was clear that the agency was failing in one of its central responsibilities: promoting access to a lucrative industry for persons who had been disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs, as well as other targeted groups such as persons of color, LGBTQ, disabled, women and veterans."
Over the summer, amid questions over whether CCC executive director Shawn Collins was planning to leave, O’Brien declared the agency to be “in crisis.”
The five cannabis commissioners are appointed by the governor, the treasurer and the attorney general, and the treasurer is tasked with designating the body's chair.
The state law creating the commission does not mention any process for suspending commissioners. It does authorize the three elected officials to remove their own appointees for specific reasons. Commissioners can be removed if they are "guilty of malfeasance in office," neglect their duties, are unable to perform their duties, commit "gross misconduct," or are convicted of a felony. The law says that before removal, a commissioner must be given both a written statement explaining why and an "opportunity to be heard."