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Updates On Commission Chair Drama And Calls For More Agency Oversight

Agency responds to criticism from state lawmakers—again

The Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission has made far more positive headlines than negative lately. From the rollout of the application process for its fourth and latest Social Equity Program cohort to a profile of the CCC’s work on social consumption on the television news magazine Chronicle, the agency seems to be on an upward trajectory.

But while it is true that the current commission formation and its supporting staff is getting much accomplished on multiple fronts, there is still debris in the air from several dust-ups, including the months-long suspension of CCC Chair Shannon O’Brien and calls for more CCC oversight by state lawmakers.

Last September, a bipartisan group of five state legislators released a scathing letter to the chairs of the Joint Committee on Cannabis Policy saying, among other things, that 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.” 

Responding one week later, CCC Chief Communications Officer Cedric Sinclair, writing on behalf of the agency’s then-Exec. Director Shawn Collins, hit back, writing, “Although we did not receive any letter from Sen. Michael Moore and your other four colleagues directly, I wanted to take this opportunity to share information regarding the Cannabis Control Commission (Commission)’s operations and answer any questions that they raised.”

And back and forth they have gone since, with Moore keeping the agency in his sights, but apparently not on speed dial. In response to a recent letter the senator sent to Secretary of the Executive Office for Administration and Finance Matthew Gorzkowicz about the commission’s budget request, acting CCC Executive Director Debra Hilton-Creek wrote:

Although the Cannabis Control Commission (Commission) did not receive your recent letter to Secretary Gorzkowicz directly, I wanted to take this opportunity to share with you some crucial information regarding our budget request for FY 2025 submitted to the Executive Office for Administration and Finance (ANF). … Please know that if you or your team ever have any questions regarding the work of the Commission, we are ready and willing to assist with providing any clarity you may need.

Those initial jabs aside, the Hilton-Creek retort is much less snarky than the letter sent by Sinclair last September, though both focus on the commission’s achievements, touting good deeds like public awareness campaigns and work on the Host Community Agreement front. The acting executive director also provides detail in direct response to some of Moore’s concerns, like “the delegation of staff work during the former Executive Director’s parental leave this past fall.” Hilton-Creek explains:

The former Executive Director submitted a Key Contact Form to the Comptroller’s office designating the Chief Operating Officer (COO) as agency head during his leave of absence, even though this action was unnecessary as he was still actively employed by the Commission, and the COO had been duly authorized to perform agency financial functions since 2020. The Comptroller’s office notified the Commission that it was returning the filing as invalid since the Executive Director remained the duly appointed agency head pursuant to [Mass General Laws]. Upon review, the Comptroller’s Office notified the Commission that the previous Key Contact filing remained effective and that since the COO retained Department Head Signature Authorization and credit card designation, all Commission financial functions were valid and authorized during this period of time.

You can read the CCC’s full letter here. We requested a copy of Moore’s latest letter, and will link to it here after we receive it.

As for the suspended chair … Just last week, the Boston Globe reported that “Federal prosecutors have sought a trove of records tied to Shannon O’Brien, including the top cannabis regulator’s personnel file and the contents of her email account, saying the requests were part of a grand jury investigation.”

And then there is her legal tussle with state Treasurer Deb Goldberg, who initially appointed and later suspended O’Brien for reasons that have only trickled out for the public and stakeholders to process over subsequent months. The ousted chair was initially supposed to have her proverbial day in Suffolk County Superior Court last fall. But after the treasurer agreed to hear the chair out in a less formal setting, that date was called off. In its place, Goldberg was scheduled to meet with O’Brien in early November. 

That gathering got pushed back to Dec. 5, but in bickering through various news outlets, it became clear that they were not heading toward agreement. The State House News Service noted that “while O’Brien seems to think the sit-down will be a public hearing … Goldberg’s office has more frequently referred to the huddle with O’Brien as a meeting and has said details on the format are not available.”

In the time since, one central disagreement has been rooted in two different CCC probes into the ousted chair’s work behavior. But now, after months of wrangling and postponed hearing dates, some closure on this issue may finally be on the horizon. Though the way things have gone so far, you never know. As Colin Young reported for State House News Service this week:

Appeals Court Judge Rachel Hershfang said in an order late Tuesday that the arguments O’Brien presented in her appeal do not meet the “high standard” necessary to overturn a Superior Court ruling.

“My review of the record reveals no error of law or abuse of discretion in the motion judge’s ruling that the Supreme Judicial Court’s various decisions in the Levy cases govern the analysis of the process due to the plaintiff … and that the procedural protections described in the revised protocol are adequate to satisfy those requirements,” Hershfang wrote.

Joe Baerlein, a spokesperson for O’Brien, said Tuesday night that O’Brien “looks forward to the truth coming out of this hearing process.”