New pot czar is known quantity
Assistant treasurer tapped as executive director for marijuana commission
A TOP AIDE to state Treasurer Deborah Goldberg who fashioned the regulatory infrastructure for the nascent retail marijuana business when that office was set to oversee the emerging industry has been tapped as the state’s executive director of the new commission in charge of legal pot.
Assistant Treasurer Shawn Collins, 31, was unanimously approved by the Cannabis Control Commission, getting the nod over the person charged with implementing Rhode Island’s medical marijuana law and a woman who runs a Massachusetts child advocacy nonprofit.
Prior to his work in the treasurer’s office, Collins was a legislative aide to state Sen. Richard Moore and is well known on Beacon Hill. Commission chairman Steven Hoffman dismissed concerns that the appointment had the look of an inside deal saying the commissioners came to the same conclusion on the best candidate independent of each other or outside influence.
“There was nothing orchestrated here,” said Hoffman. “I can’t account for how people will respond, it’s not my job. I know this was not a fixed process. I know it was a fair process. I know it was an open process and I think we came up with the right candidate.”
“I am grateful for the unanimous support of the Commission,” Collins said in a statement issued through the treasurer’s office. “This is an exciting opportunity to establish the agency that will develop a brand new industry in the Commonwealth. There is plenty of work to be done and I can’t wait to get started.”
Will Luzier, a former assistant attorney general who was the campaign manager for last year’s ballot question legalizing pot, called Collins “an excellent choice.” He said he and other proponents met with Collins several times and found him informed about the issue, though Luzier said he didn’t know if he was pro- or anti-pot.
The hiring process played out in a very public fashion, with the initial pool of 42 applicants winnowed to eight and then the three finalists interviewed by the cannabis commission in a public hearing on Tuesday. The commissioners held their deliberations Thursday afternoon in an open meeting. Hoffman said the three candidates – Norman Birenbaum, Erin Bradley, and Collins – showed “extraordinary courage” in sitting for the public grilling.
During deliberations, the three candidates – all three of whom had ties to the State House – were praised by commission members for their management experience, but only Birenbaum and Collins had been involved in dealing with legal marijuana, a fact all five commissioners cited as a mark against Bradley, the executive director of the Children’s League of Massachusetts.
“There’s a significant learning curve to marijuana,” said Commissioner Kay Doyle, who dealt with medical marijuana when she was counsel at the Department of Public Health. She called the lack of experience an “impediment” to ramping up the regulations in a short timeframe. Collins, she said, “does get some of the more nuanced issues and can hit the ground running.”
Commissioner Jennifer Flanagan, a former state senator, said she had dealings with Bradley, a former aide to state Sen. Karen Spilka, in the Legislature and while she admired her “passion,” she, too, thought it would be difficult for her to quickly get up to speed.
Like other members, Flanagan thought Birenbaum, a Newton native who worked on the campaigns for former governor Deval Patrick and US Sen. Elizabeth Warren and was an assistant to former lieutenant governor Tim Murray, had been gone from the state too long to be able to navigate the nuances of Bay State politics. Hoffman said he thought Birenbaum displayed “not a lot of humility” in offering very confident answers to every question asked. By contrast, he said Collins – who will oversee a staff of 40 to 50 people and be expected to hit some very tight upcoming deadlines including opening retail shops by next July 1 – admitted he had things to learn, which Hoffman said was an essential part of the job.
In the end, it was Collins’s familiarity with the Legislature and the subject matter that won him the job. The commission will need much more than the initial $2 million that has been allotted to get the process going this year before any revenues begin flowing in. Collins came up with an estimate of $10.4 million. He’ll be asked to go to lawmakers to seek money in a supplemental budget.Also, in the year leading up to last November’s referendum and in the months after approval, Collins began work on the structure of the regulatory framework because the initiative initially put the cannabis commission under the auspices of Goldberg’s office. Hoffman said the commission is using much of that framework to create the law’s regulatory infrastructure.
“He knows this subject cold,” Hoffman told reporters after the hearing. “It is all Shawn’s work. We’re miles and miles ahead of where we would be otherwise and my confidence in our ability to get this done right and on time is dramatically improved because the caliber of the work that had been done.”