New pot czar has inhaled
Hoffman says drug is 'harmless' but can be abused
DESPITE VOTING AGAINST the referendum to legalize marijuana last November, Steven Hoffman, the chairman of the new state board charged with regulating the nascent retail pot industry, said he thinks the drug is “harmless” and will cause no more problems than alcohol.
“I personally believe marijuana is a harmless drug,” Hoffman said in an interview with CommonWealth shortly after he met with the media for the first time Wednesday. “Just like alcohol, which can be overused and abused, I think it should be kept away from minors.”
Hoffman bases his opinion in part on personal experience: He freely admits he smoked. And he inhaled. Hoffman said he dabbled in pot going back to his high school days and, rarely using it since, smoked a legal joint in Colorado as recently as last summer.
“I went to high school in the ‘60s and went to college in the early ‘70s; it was ubiquitous,” said Hoffman meeting with the media on his first day as chairman of the Cannabis Control Commission. He said he last smoked pot when he and his wife went to Colorado to visit friends over the July 4 weekend in 2016.
That, though, appears to be the extent of experience for the man overseeing the state’s foray into the business of marijuana. Hoffman, 64, who came out of retirement to take the position, is a former partner at Bain and Company and a longtime executive in management consulting firms.
He conceded his knowledge of what it takes to grow and sell pot is limited but insisted his business background will serve him well.
“I’ve always put together strong teams,” he told reporters. “I’ve done start-ups, which is essentially what this is. It’s a big start-up and one I haven‘t done before, but it is a start-up. I really feel good about my ability to put together strong teams.”
In the interview with CommonWealth, which will be available on the magazine’s website Thursday, Hoffman said he first learned about the marijuana post from a former business associate who had been approached by Senate President Stanley Rosenberg looking for possible candidates for the job. Hoffman said the friend gave Rosenberg his name, which led to an interview with state Treasurer Deborah Goldberg. Goldberg subsequently appointed him chairman of the Cannabis Control Commission. Hoffman said Rosenberg called to congratulate him after his appointment.
The Legislature approved $2 million for the commission to operate in its first year, with Gov. Charlie Baker seeking approval from lawmakers to spend an additional $300,000 that was approved but never expended from last year’s budget. With the five board members alone chewing up about $750,000 in salary and benefits, many think that’s not nearly enough to fund a regulatory operation from scratch. Goldberg, who had been operating under the assumption her office would oversee the commission as laid out in the referendum before being marginalized by the Legislature, estimated it would require at least $10.3 million to get the ball rolling.
“We have the resources to get started,” he said. “I will reserve comment over whether those are sufficient to get us to the finish line… We’ll figure out exactly what is needed in terms of resources, timing, personnel, put it all together as a plan and if the current funding is inadequate, as I suspect it will be, we’ll go to the Legislature, go through our plan, and say here is what we need.”
Hoffman said the tight deadline between now and the July 1, 2018, target date to open the first retail stores can be met, saying he’d draw off his experience with other start-ups that appeared to have “impossible deadlines” but were successfully launched. He said Goldberg’s office previously laid the groundwork for a lot of what needs to be done and the commission can draw off that.
“During the period from the initiative last November and when the legislation was passed in July, the treasurer’s office, under the assumption this was still under their aegis, did an awful lot of work,” he said. “We’ve got a running start. There’s been a lot of work that has been done in the last six months.”
But even with all that legwork, Hoffman wouldn’t rule out extending the deadline if needed.
“My understanding is that it is an expectation, but not explicitly part of the law, that retail establishments open July 1 of 2018 and that’s our intent at this point, “ he said. “I’m a realist and if that’s reality, that’s reality.”
Hoffman is one of four board members who voted against the referendum last fall, along with former state Sen. Jennifer Flanagan, who was appointed by Baker; Britte McBride, appointed by Attorney General Maura Healey; and Kay Doyle, a former legal counsel at the Department of Public Health who was a consensus pick of the three constitutional officers. Only the other consensus pick, Shaleen Title, an attorney and legal marijuana advocate who helped draft the referendum, was a proponent of the ballot question.
Hoffman said his concern with the referendum was the tight deadlines it imposed, though he admitted taking over with less than 300 days to launch a regulatory system from scratch is “ironic.”
“I actually support the objectives of the initiative,” said Hoffman. “My concern as a private citizen was that I thought the timeline was pretty short to deal with some of the complexities and public safety issues involved with implementing the law, but I am a supporter of the objectives of the law… I find it amazingly ironic, my concerns as a private citizen in November 2016, and I’m now part of the commission with the responsibility for addressing those concerns.”Hoffman said while he can’t speak for the other members of the commission, he was convinced their votes against the initiative would not interfere with their duties.
“I don’t think any one of them would have taken this job if they didn’t think they could faithfully implement the law,” he said.