In announcing director's exit, chair says Mass. cannabis commission 'in crisis'

The chairwoman of the Cannabis Control Commission took commissioners by surprise Friday when she announced in the middle of a regulatory discussion that Executive Director Shawn Collins is planning to leave the agency he has run since its inception and described the commission as being "in crisis."

Chairwoman Shannon O'Brien said she wants to meet next week or the week after with her fellow commissioners to discuss Collins' departure — which has not been acknowledged by Collins, who was not made available to the News Service on Friday afternoon — and how the commission should proceed as it gets into the meat of its latest round of marijuana industry regulation revisions.

O'Brien, the former state treasurer who came under scrutiny for her ties to a cannabis company soon after Treasurer Deborah Goldberg tapped her to chair the commission last September, announced during Friday's virtual meeting that Collins informed her in May that he planned announce that he would leave the commission at the end of this year and that he wanted to take 10 weeks of family leave beginning in September. O'Brien said she asked Collins not to make that announcement in May.

"It was a little bit out of the blue. I wasn't sure, I said, 'I would ask that you wait.' We're 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 help us not only get through regulatory writing but to exercise the important responsibilities that we have," she said Friday.

O'Brien said she spoke with Collins about his departure again Thursday and that he "further indicated to me that he planned on taking his family leave beginning on Monday." That prompted the chairwoman to consult labor attorneys and O'Brien said the expectation is that employees give their employer 30 days notice before starting family leave in most situations.

"We are in crisis right now as a commission. We need to make sure that we know how to manage through this regulatory process," O'Brien said.

She added, "I did not want to announce this in May because I wanted to make sure that we got our chief people officer in place. We were doing a search for general counsel. We were in the throes of regulatory writing. [...] I want to protect the rights of all employees at the commission. But I want to have a conversation with my fellow commissioners to discuss the leave, and to do that in a way where we have time to prepare, where we properly notify the employee about how we will have this conversation."

O'Brien said the announcement fell under a line on the commission's agenda allowing for "New Business Not Anticipated at the Time of Posting" and she made it before she had to make an early exit from the meeting to travel.

Other commissioners appeared to be caught off-guard. Commissioner Nurys Camargo said "everyone's in shock" that the topic was brought up for discussion in public the way it was and Commissioner Bruce Stebbins said he was "still trying to figure out where that fit into our consideration of the agenda and the work we have to get done." Commissioner Ava Callender Concepcion said she would "prefer that we put a pin in this, honestly" because of the important regulatory work that was also on Friday's agenda. O'Brien responded by saying she was worried that Collins' leave might affect that work.

"I don't want to get into the specifics, but when I was notified [...] the intent was that the family leave begin on Monday, I felt that that could have an impact on regulations and everything else that we need to do," the chairwoman said. "I don't think it's inappropriate. I think it's me responding to a statement that was made to me yesterday about beginning the 10-week paid family leave that he is entitled to, but it creates chaos for us."

After Friday's meeting, Concepcion said she and others at the commission had still not heard directly from Collins, only from O'Brien.

"I want to make sure that the executive director has the ability to give his statements, any perspective that he wants to offer, and also just clarify that there is no official statement there that was given, both to the public or to myself," the commissioner said. "But I also want to make sure that it's really clear that I do, I find it a bit inappropriate to discuss personal matters both to the press and at a public meeting setting."

Concepcion also made clear that she did not agree with O'Brien's assessment that the commission is "in crisis."

"No, I would never say that we're in crisis. I think it's a bit inflammatory, but you would have to speak to the chair in order to understand why, where that was coming from," she said. "She was speaking from an individual capacity. So I don't share that same perspective. And that did not come from me or any other commissioner for that matter."

The commission is in the midst of implementing the state's new cannabis equity law, which aims to rein in some of the hiccups in the maturing industry, and has been busy working on revisions to the detailed rules for the industry in Massachusetts.

Collins was unanimously chosen in the fall of 2017 to lead the commission as its inaugural executive director. Prior to that, he was an assistant treasurer who served as Treasurer Deborah Goldberg's point person on cannabis during the debate over legalization and until oversight of marijuana was removed from the treasurer's direct auspices by the Legislature in a rewrite of the 2016 ballot law.

Grant Smith Ellis, an independent journalist who closely follows the commission, posted a video of much of the discussion on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, Friday.


More from WBUR

Listen Live