What A Week: Fewer Jobs, Secret Fines, And Clandestine Meetings

The Massachusetts cannabis soap opera continues, in and out of court, as stakeholders brace for more fallout

Following a week in which the Office of the State Auditor released a damning report about the Cannabis Control Commission while the agency’s executive director shot back at lawmakers who are demanding more oversight, there was no telling what October might bring in this never boring corner of the cannabis world.

Those and other fires have produced more smoke on a horizon that’s already foggy due to the suspension of CCC Chair Shannon O’Brien by state Treasurer Deb Goldberg. The icing on last week’s disaster cake was the former suing the latter, seeking an injunction barring Goldberg “from continuing her unlawful removal of O’Brien from her position at the CCC.” The chair says she was suspended “without notice, without articulated reason, and without any opportunity to be heard.”

As Commonwealth and others reported this morning, those proceedings are on hold, pending a hearing that the treasurer will hold on Nov. 7. “I filed my lawsuit in order to force Treasurer Goldberg to follow the law and give me an opportunity to be heard. She notified my legal counsel yesterday that we will have a hearing in early November,” O’Brien said through her attorney.

With that lawsuit brewing and stakeholders shedding light on the situation, this week Jeff Rawson, Ph.D., president of the Institute of Cannabis Science in Cambridge, sent his own letter to Goldberg, expressing his “concerns regarding the suspension” of O’Brien. “My experiences leading an organization to protect consumers of cannabis have led me to see Chair O’Brien as a needed reformer at the CCC, and I  believe she is the subject of retaliation in response to performing her duty,” he wrote.

Rawson’s detailed letter won’t be the last that we hear from those who have been criticizing the commission for its “lack of regulatory guidance” on testing labs, as another outspoken scientist recently put it.

Along with problems at the regulator level, this week Boston Business Journal also reported less than good news about the industry itself. Data as well as anecdotal reports from the past few months have shown that several businesses are hurting, even as total sales numbers increase. Further complicating matters, a BBJ analysis shows that the “so-called ‘green rush’ has cooled off.” “For the first time,” they note, “cannabis employment is down across Massachusetts.”

Meanwhile, in an editorial last Friday, the Boston Globe dropped a noteworthy parenthetical about Trulieve, which laid off more than 100 Mass workers earlier this year. The CCC has not made any official announcements about the major multi-state operator since the company packed up and left the Bay State in June, shutting its dispensaries and ceasing all its operations, following blowback over the death of a worker, Lorna McMurrey, at their Holyoke cultivation facility in January 2022. After several months of the CCC investigating the tragedy, we learned the following via the Globe:

(On Sept. 20, 2023, the commission notified Trulieve that it intended to levy a fine of $502,500 because the company failed to follow workplace safety operating procedures; failed to process marijuana in a safe and sanitary manner; submitted untruthful information in an incident report; and other violations. The details were redacted in a copy of the letter provided to the Globe. Trulieve can appeal.)

It’s unlikely that we’ll find out more at the commission’s next public meeting, on Oct. 10. According to the agenda, the body will retreat into executive session right after convening. It may be necessary, but the optics are still less than optimal considering all of the rigmarole around the commission. As state lawmakers wrote in a public letter about agency “dysfunction” last month, “the CCC has engaged in semi-regular executive session mediation.”

“As the public is excluded from executive session, the specific items discussed in the mediation, its progress and status are all unclear,” legislators wrote. “As the Open Meeting Law makes clear, these issues are not intended to remain behind closed doors forever, and ultimately are expected to be resolved publicly.”

Maybe that will happen at their subsequent meeting on Oct. 12.