Former treasurer Shannon O’Brien picked to lead cannabis board
New Cannabis Control Commission chair ran unsuccessfully for governor
FORMER STATE TREASURER Shannon O’Brien, who ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2002, will be the next chair of the Cannabis Control Commission.
Treasurer Deborah Goldberg announced the appointment Tuesday. O’Brien will be sworn in Thursday, the fifth anniversary of the commission’s founding.
O’Brien replaces Sarah Kim, who had been serving as interim chair since Steven Hoffman, the commission’s first leader, stepped down in April. Kim has said she did not apply for the permanent job.
O’Brien, who was not available for interviews on Tuesday, said in a statement, “I look forward to working with the other commissioners, agency staff, and stakeholders to ensure that this industry is well regulated while enhancing economic benefits for the citizens of the Commonwealth.”
Goldberg said of O’Brien, “I am confident that her financial background, experience in corporate governance, executive management, and business development, combined with outstanding leadership skills and an acute knowledge of the legislative process, will help the Massachusetts cannabis industry be fairly regulated, equitable, and successful.” Under state law, the commission chair is appointed by the state treasurer and is required to have experience in corporate management, finance, or securities.
O’Brien has a long history with state government. A Democrat, she was elected to the House in 1986, at age 27, then to the state Senate in 1992. She ran for treasurer and lost in 1994, then ran again and was elected treasurer four years later and served one term. In 2002, she won the Democratic nomination for governor in a competitive primary but lost to Republican Mitt Romney in the general election.
Since leaving Massachusetts state government, she worked as a television reporter, CEO of the Girl Scouts of Greater Boston, and chair of a New York State pension reform commission. She founded a business consulting group, the O’Brien Advisory Group, and currently chairs Goldberg’s Baby Bonds task force.
Beacon Hill insiders say O’Brien brings a mix of political acumen and intelligence to the role.
“I think she’s been around state politics and state government enough that I think she’s going to have that right mix of regulatory and political sensibility that was really hard to put together in the original Cannabis Control Commission,” said Daniel Delaney, founder of a government affairs firm that works in cannabis policy.
Joe Malone, the former Republican state treasurer who defeated O’Brien in 1994, said O’Brien has an understanding of how Beacon Hill works combined with the judgment needed to make honest decisions. As commission chair, and as treasurer, Malone said, “You always have to have a moral compass that keeps you on track.” Malone said O’Brien now has private and public sector experience. While the two were once fierce opponents and ideological opposites, Malone said he thinks O’Brien is a good choice as someone who is “bright, conscientious, and has a wealth of experience.”
Shaleen Title, a former cannabis commissioner who founded the Parabola Center, a think tank focused on federal marijuana legalization, said she has some concern that all five commissioners now have some government background. The original commission had two members – Title and chair Steven Hoffman – who had not worked in government. “That led to better policy because we brought an outside perspective,” Title said. “We were willing to scrutinize and ask questions.”
While Hoffman was tasked with founding an industry and building up the regulatory agency, O’Brien will take the helm of an industry that is largely up and running, but still faces challenges. She will likely oversee the rule-writing and start of the newest segment of the industry – cannabis cafes and other social consumption sites. She will lead the first commission that has the authority, under the newly passed law, to oversee host community agreements and write guidance to make the municipal licensing process more equitable.
Delaney said more mature markets on the West Coast have gotten into a place of overcultivation, where the cost of producing marijuana is more than the price it can be sold for. Massachusetts today has some of the country’s highest prices. Delaney said the commission will have to build a framework “where supply and demand and the number of players meets the market.” Delaney said the new chair will have to handle a complex regulatory environment and a politically charged industry. “Now that we’re over prohibition or no prohibition [question], it’s going take someone with political nimbleness to have the right conversations to stand up the industry,” Delaney said.