STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
AS EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR of the Cannabis Control Commission, Shawn Collins is in the driver’s seat of a newly empowered regulatory agency, one that oversees an industry that’s still finding its footing and provides regulators with a parade of heady issues to address.
Collins told the News Service this week that he has no firm plan to relinquish the wheel just yet, despite a public announcement to the contrary from the CCC chair that stirred the agency in July. Aside from taking parental leave that’s afforded him, Collins said he is focused on the work of the commission.
“I remain the executive director as of today,” he told the News Service on Tuesday. “It’s certainly a job that I enjoy quite a bit. It’s a very stimulating job, a lot of novel issues, the issues continue to evolve on a pretty regular basis. So something I still get a lot of energy from.”
Chairwoman Shannon O’Brien caught commissioners and staff off guard when she announced at a July 28 meeting that Collins, the only executive director the CCC has had, was planning to depart the agency at the end of the year and that he wanted to take family leave before then. She said the situation put the CCC “in crisis” as it approached the finish line for its latest rewrite of cannabis industry regulations.
The chairwoman later apologized for any “angst” or “confusion” she caused with her announcement.
Collins acknowledged this week that the CCC has at least been thinking about what would happen if or when he leaves the agency. He said there has been “a lot of discussion about succession planning and those types of things” over the last few years at the agency.
“So I don’t know what the future holds for me, certainly, but I’m looking forward to clocking in on a daily basis and continuing to do the work alongside the folks that are here at the agency,” he said. “So that status hasn’t changed. I remain the executive director and have not resigned.”
Asked about O’Brien’s assertion that he is planning to leave the CCC at the end of the year, Collins told the News Service this week that he has had “really no conversations to that effect as far as any definitive plans at all.”
“That would be something I’d want to talk about with the commission as a whole. Again, I think making sure there’s a plan in place for that succession is important. It’s something that commissioners have raised in public meetings throughout the last year,” the executive director said. “At this point, there is no concrete plan for the end of the year.”
And Collins also disagreed with O’Brien’s characterization of the CCC as being “in crisis.” The CCC has always had its hands full, he said, but the work is meaningful and important, and that motivates the staff to stay energized and to keep working.
“From the beginning, since at least I joined the commission, it has been a full sprint. And I don’t think that really changed at all in at least my going-on-six years now. There’s always more work to do than there is time in the day,” Collins said. “So I wouldn’t agree with the assessment that it’s in crisis. I think it is very stimulating work that requires a lot of energy and we’ve expended a lot of energy over my going-on-six years.”
The CCC spent much of this year re-writing the regulations that have been in place since legal marijuana sales started in 2018. The new regs, which are based on last year’s industry reform law and are the subject of a public hearing Friday, seek to increase diversity in the cannabis industry, move closer to social pot consumption sites, and ramp up long-sought oversight on the host community agreements between marijuana businesses and municipalities that have been a chronic trouble spot for the legal industry.
Collins said a new set of requirements that emphasize equity in local licensing processes and municipal contributions to the Cannabis Social Equity Trust Fund “really has an opportunity to be very powerful.” The CCC has had an equity mission embedded in it since the 2016 legalization ballot question and legislative rewrite, Collins said, but it was never an obligation that cities and towns consider equity in their local decision-making.
“That has the opportunity to be really impactful and maybe, hopefully, move the needle on equity,” he said. “Because as we’ve seen in the market, there’s a bit of a saturation that could be going on. And we’re now six years into this. So, it’s not a long time in the grand scheme of things, but with the emergence of a new industry, at some point, it becomes saturated to the point where that competition gets more intense. And so I think municipalities having that requirement on them now is, I think it’s important.”
As the legal cannabis market has matured in Massachusetts, prices for marijuana have come down and some businesses have gone bust. A recent headline in the Boston Globe Magazine asked, “Pot prices have tanked. Dispensaries are closing. Is a great crash coming?” But cumulative sales since November 2018 surpassed $5 billion last month and the pace of sales has been accelerating, even as neighboring states like Rhode Island, New York and Connecticut have opened retailers.
“If you’re a patient or consumer, you’re now accessing cheaper medicine and cheaper product. But, in fairness, if you are a business building out your vision over the last three or four years, you probably anticipated those prices either remaining at the pace that they were or maybe not declining as steeply as they have,” Collins said. “Nonetheless, last month was another banner month for the industry as far as sales in Massachusetts. So there is still demand there and that demand is in a more competitive environment, regionally … So the circumstances and the environment has changed dramatically. But then again, you look across the country and you see that that same phenomenon, generally.”
Fifty-three retail stores and four delivery outfits have opened for business in Massachusetts since January, the CCC said. There are 317 retailers, nine delivery couriers, eight delivery operators and one microbusiness with a delivery endorsement that have commenced operations here since 2018.
During the same time, 16 marijuana companies (including five retailers) have surrendered their licenses, let them expire, or had them revoked, the CCC said. That’s 2.8 percent of all previously operating companies and 1.6 percent of all once operating retailers.
“I would say, from a competitive standpoint, I would expect that to happen. It happens in all industries. Is there a saturation point in certain areas of Massachusetts versus the entire commonwealth? Product competition and competition for shelf space. You know, at first it was, ‘what can I get my hands on?’ and now you’re starting to see some brands emerge,” Collins said.
Alluding to recent moves at the federal level that could result in a change of classification for marijuana and subsequent shifts in the legal industry, Collins said he thinks the current state of the Massachusetts market “bodes well” for Bay State businesses to eventually compete in “what could end up being an interstate commerce environment someday.”
“I think Mass. is relatively well poised to compete in that environment,” the executive director said.
Collins on Tuesday also addressed allegations made this summer by the founder and CEO of one of the first laboratories approved to test marijuana in Massachusetts. At a legislative hearing in July, MCR Labs head Michael Kahn detailed some of “the waste, fraud and abuse that we have seen and documented in our interactions with the CCC.” Kahn was particularly critical of CCC enforcement staff that showed up at MCR Labs and conducted an unannounced inspection that he described as “unfocused and unprofessional.”
Collins said this week that the CCC’s human resources department investigated the claims and found that “the evidence did not support or substantiate many of the allegations that were made.” He said there were some issues raised with the handling of samples and the use of personal protective gear during the inspection, but nothing more serious.
“Otherwise, the concerns around physical touch or some of the more aggravated concerns were just not substantiated,” Collins said. “From my standpoint, it was an unannounced inspection. Those are inherently tense. We’re not calling ahead and scheduling a time. So I do, I think, equate some of the concern to that environment and that sort of, again, tense nature of it.”