Top Cannabis Regulator Drops Bombshell At Friday Meeting, Stuns Colleagues

“We are in crisis right now as a commission, we need to make sure that we can manage through this regulatory process.”

It will forever be known as the day that Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission Chair Shannon O’Brien farted before exiting a vehicle still full of passengers.

O’Brien had made it clear that she needed a personal “hard stop” before 2pm at Friday’s public meeting of commissioners, who would then proceed in her absence until they finished their agenda. The chair even announced her need to leave early on Friday several times starting during the seven-hour Thursday meeting that spilled over into yesterday’s sequel, so her fellow CCC members seemed especially stunned when she threw a grenade full of explosive information she learned months ago into the virtual room less than an hour prior to her planned exit.

“Before the second May meeting of the commission,” O’Brien prefaced, “[CCC Executive Director Shawn Collins] said to me, Today I am going to announce that I am leaving at the end of the year. And that I intend to take my family leave, having just had a new baby, starting in September and I will leave [the commission permanently] after the regulatory process is done.”

For those who follow the CCC closely, the news hit like hearing that Lorne Michaels is departing Saturday Night Live, or that Professor X is breaking up with the X-Men. Collins may not be the founder or creator of the agency, but he’s been there since its founding in 2017 and helped create its policies and culture in innumerable ways.

O’Brien continued, “I asked [Collins] not to announce that day [in May]. It was a little bit out of the blue and I said, I would ask that you wait. We are in the process of hiring a new chief people officer, we’re hiring a new general counsel, we are depleted in terms of some of our top management and staff to not only help us get through regulatory writing but to exercise the important responsibilities that we have.

Commissioner Nurys Camargo offered the first gut reaction after some uncomfortable silence: “I’m sorry madame chair. … I’m so confused.”

O’Brien explained, “This is new business not anticipated at the time of posting [of the agenda for Friday’s meeting]. … I had a conversation with the executive director yesterday who again indicated to me that he was about to announce [his departure] yesterday. … He further indicated to me that he planned on taking his family leave beginning on Monday.”

The chair then noted that she has “consulted with labor attorneys,” adding that “employees shall give no less than 30 days notice to their employer of the anticipated start date of family or medical leave.

“We are in crisis right now as a commission,” O’Brien said, “we need to make sure that we can manage through this regulatory process.”

According to the chair, she started working on the staffing issue back in May: “I began making some inquiries: Are there people out there who might necessarily want to apply for this position?” Still, O’Brien said at the meeting, due to the ongoing search for their chief people officer and general counsel and due to being “in the throes of regulatory writing,” “I did not want to announce this in May.”

“I need a moment to process,” Camargo said. “That was a lot, and I think a little inappropriate.”

O’Brien apologized to fellow members for the delay in sharing the news, saying her announcement “was planned for back in June before our deadlines were moved.” At the same time, she repeatedly defended her decision to bring up the Collins issue during Friday’s meeting despite it not being on the agenda, citing “open meeting rules” and the need “to be careful when we are setting policy,” “respect for the legal rights of all employees to fully enjoy their family leave,” and motivation “to move things forward and get this done.”

“When I heard that the family leave could start on Monday [for Collins], I felt that could have an impact on regulations and everything else that we need to do,” O’Brien said. “It creates chaos for us, and I want an opportunity for us to absorb.”

The chair added, “I want to protect the rights of all employees of the commission but I want to have a conversation with my fellow commissioners to discuss this, to discuss the leave, and to do that in a way where we have time to prepare and where we properly notify the employee that we’re having this conversation. It may require us to go into executive session. All of that requires advanced notification, so I am—just as a courtesy to you and the staff—letting you know. I don’t really want to get into the conversation because we have to get through regulatory writing.”

This all comes as commissioners, their support staffers, and outside stakeholders are working on comprehensive regulatory rewrites, many of which are focused around parts of the state’s cannabis law regarding Host Community Agreements (HCAs), social consumption licensing, and equity at the municipal level. As for staffing, CCC members have met in executive session (which is not open to the media or public) several times this year to discuss, among other things, potential conflicts of interest stemming from O’Brien’s former relationship with a dispensary in Franklin County.

“I apologize,” said O’Brien, who didn’t ask for any votes or further discussion on the staffing matter. “I am not trying to stifle the [regulatory] conversation in any way, shape, or form. I am trying to make sure we meet our responsibilities. … I know this is uncomfortable. I just wanted to address this in a public forum and as you know, open meeting law precludes us from having these meetings randomly and outside of the public.”

Commissioner Ava Callender Concepcion said, “I would prefer that we put a pin in this. We have reiterated time and again that we are facing really tight deadlines and we’re facing a really substantive conversation right now around [cannabis establishment agent and employee] suitability that’s really important. … It’s a lot to process. I want to give our executive director some space as well to digest what has happened and an opportunity here, but today’s focus is important to the industry as a whole.”

“I want to move forward right now—I think everyone’s in shock,” Camargo added. “I think this came from left field a little bit. With all due respect, I think we need to have this conversation at another time.” (She later clarified, “I used the word ‘shock’ in terms of that we’re having this conversation now and in public.”)

Camargo briefly returned to the staffing issue at the end of the meeting, after O’Brien left: “I think we had an inappropriate conversation today about the executive director’s next steps or family leave. I think we could have done it in executive session. That is my personal and professional comment, so I want to apologize to the team. There is a lot of work that goes into the Cannabis Control Commission and folks may not see it. I know there is some stuff that we may not do right all the time, but people are committed to this job.”