Cannabis regulator Kay Doyle jumps to pharma

Greenwich Biosciences manufactures the first FDA-approved cannabis drug

CANNABIS CONTROL COMMISSIONER Kay Doyle is leaving the state oversight panel to take a job as US director of public policy for Greenwich Biosciences, the first company to manufacture an FDA-approved cannabis drug.

“It returns me back to really focusing on patients, which is where my heart is,” Doyle said.

The five-member Cannabis Control Commission was appointed in 2017 to oversee the state’s new marijuana industry. Doyle, who was jointly appointed by the treasurer, governor, and attorney general, will be the first of the five original commissioners to leave the commission.

Doyle’s term would have been up September 1, along with the term of Commissioner Shaleen Title. Two other commissioners finish their terms in 2021, while chairman Steven Hoffman’s term ends in 2022. All new appointees will be named to five-year terms.

Doyle said she always planned to serve just one term, and the company recruited her for the job.

Greenwich Biosciences, the US subsidiary of GW Pharmaceuticals, developed EPIDOLEX, a medication that treats severe forms of epilepsy and was the first drug derived from cannabis to be approved for use by the US Food and Drug Administration. Doyle will be advising the company on policies surrounding EPIDOLEX and future products the company develops.

Members of the Cannabis Control Commission at the panel’s inaugural meeting. The commissioners are, from left to right, Jennifer Flanagan, Britte McBride, chairman Steven Hoffman, Kay Doyle, and Shaleen Title.

“It essentially takes everything I’ve learned in the past few years about cannabis and the regulation of cannabis-derived therapies and brings it up to the next level, looking at how it’s going to work as it goes through the FDA approval process, then is used just like any other prescription medication,” Doyle said.

The company is based in California, but Doyle will be working from home in Massachusetts.

Doyle played a major role in standing up the Massachusetts marijuana industry. An attorney, she previously worked as general counsel for the Department of Public Health, where she advised DPH on setting up the state’s medical marijuana program. In that role, she became Massachusetts’s first full-time public employee to be paid solely from marijuana revenues.

On the commission, Doyle played an integral role in drafting the state regulations governing the recreational side of the industry.

Reflecting on her time on the commission, Doyle said it was a “ridiculously daunting” task to try to regulate an entire new industry in a matter of months – particularly when the commission started as five people in cubicles with no staff. She said she is proud of setting up a regulatory system “that was comprehensive and public safety and public health conscious.”

Publicly, Doyle has not been one of the more outspoken voices on the commission. She has a reputation as an aggressive regulator who prioritizes public health concerns.

She took the lead on crafting the commission’s environmental and energy standards for growers, which are some of the strictest in the country in requiring marijuana growers to make their facilities energy efficient.

She has been a voice representing farmers and small businesses. She wrote a significant report about the problems small businesses are facing with host community agreements, in which municipalities often charge marijuana operators more than they are allowed under state law. She pushed for a policy of prioritizing licensing reviews for outdoor growers and of women, minority, and veteran-owned businesses. She crafted the state’s cap on cultivation, which limits the amount of marijuana any single company can grow.

She has also been active on medical marijuana policy, as the Cannabis Control Commission took over the medical marijuana program from the Department of Public Health.

Jay Youmans, a lobbyist for the cannabis industry who worked with Doyle at the Department of Public Health, called her “somebody who does the work” with an attention to detail and to both policy and people. “I think her legacy really is tackling important policy and programmatic issues that may not be the ones that get the headlines…but are the issues that do matter to everyday operators and applicants,” Youmans said.

Industry advocates criticized state regulators for being slow to get the industry started. Medical marijuana was legalized on the ballot in 2012 and recreational marijuana in 2016. The first medical dispensary opened in 2015 and the first recreational shop in November 2018.

Doyle said people had “wholly unrealistic expectations” about how long it would take to set up a new industry if policymakers care about equity. She said the industry could have opened more quickly if policymakers simply allowed the most well-financed operators to control the market. But state law requires the Cannabis Control Commission to provide a way for minorities and people disproportionately affected by past marijuana law enforcement to enter the industry.

“If you’re trying to do it in a way that’s fair and caters to small business…and do it in a way that’s careful and thoughtful, it’s not going to be easily done quickly, especially if the agency has no infrastructure and is starting from scratch,” Doyle said.

Doyle said access to capital remains the biggest challenge for small marijuana entrepreneurs. “The lack of capital is going to frustrate any good intentions that we have to make this a vibrant and diverse industry if there is no access to banking, to loans,” she said.

Today, all recreational retailers are shut down amid Gov. Charlie Baker’s order closing non-essential businesses to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Doyle said she would not second-guess Baker who “had a very difficult decision to make in light of a life-threatening pandemic.”

Meet the Author

Shira Schoenberg

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

But she said it is “unfortunate” that cannabis companies have no access to federal assistance. The entire Cannabis Control Commission wrote to Massachusetts’ congressional delegation on April 17 asking her to advocate for policies that would let state-licensed cannabis companies apply for the same federal assistance as any other state-licensed company.

Doyle said there are valid arguments favoring federal legalization of marijuana. If you want to eliminate the illicit market, she said, “You can’t make it impossible to run a legal, safe, healthy business.”