October 18, 2017

Cannabis Control Commission plans to offer director job Thursday

Flickr/Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism
The Cannabis Control Commission has interviewed three finalists for the executive director position.

The chief medical marijuana regulator from Rhode Island, the head of a Massachusetts child advocacy organization and the Treasury's point person on pot paraded in front of the Cannabis Control Commission on Tuesday afternoon, each for an hourlong interview for the job of executive director.

The five-person commission interviewed the three finalist candidates -- Norman Birenbaum, principal analyst at the Rhode Island Department of Business Regulation; Erin Bradley, executive director of the Children's League of Massachusetts; and Shawn Collins, assistant treasurer and director of policy and legislative affairs -- in public despite a concern that open interviews could deter some qualified candidates.

The commission received 42 applications for the position, CCC Chairman Steven Hoffman said, and conducted private first round interviews with eight of the applicants. Hoffman and Commissioner Britte McBride, who led the executive director search, then selected the three finalists to be interviewed in public.

"It was an extraordinarily talented group of people who applied for this position," Hoffman, who is currently serving as acting/interim executive director, said. "We had a difficult time getting down to three final candidates ... any one of the three we're interviewing today would be a great executive director. So it's going to be a difficult decision."

All three candidates described themselves as collaborative, open to learning new things, and dedicated to fulfilling statutory requirements around communities that were disproportionately impacted by marijuana prohibition and diversity in the industry.

The interviews began with Birenbaum, a Newton native who has for two years been responsible for standing up a regulatory environment for medical marijuana in Rhode Island.

He detailed for the CCC how he has developed regulations dealing with licensing and packaging, acquired a system to track marijuana from the time it is first planted until it is sold, conducted outreach with local and state officials, and coordinated between state agencies in Rhode Island.

"The size and scope of this market is obviously bigger but a lot of the moving parts are the same," he said. He later added, "There are 30 or 40 plates that need to be balanced all at once and every few weeks or every few months someone is going to throw additional plates at you that you need to catch and keep spinning. I know this because I've been doing it."

Before decamping to the Ocean State, Birenbaum worked as a regional field director for Deval Patrick's 2010 reelection campaign, he served as Lt. Gov. Tim Murray's personal assistant, worked on U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren's campaign and then as a regional director for Warren's Senate office, according to his LinkedIn profile.

"Not currently being in Massachusetts, there's going to be a slight learning curve there," he said. "But I'm fortunate to have some history here."

Bradley joined the Children's League in 2011 after having worked as a coordinator for the Children's Mental Health Campaign and as a policy analyst for Sen. Karen Spilka. Bradley has also worked as an assistant photo editor at the Chicago Sun-Times and as a photojournalist for the Boston Herald, according to her biography on the Children's League website.

"I think that my greater experience -- which is starting out working in the press, going back to school and getting a degree, working in government, working outside of government -- leads to me being a very well-rounded candidate," Bradley said.

Bradley was the only candidate interviewed Tuesday who has not dealt with cannabis in a professional capacity and was asked to explain her feelings about marijuana and people who use the substance.

"I grew up in the 80s and many of my friends smoked pot. The people that I know are going to smoke a joint and sit down and watch TV and not go anywhere," she said. "I think that it's the same as having a glass of wine at the end of the day and, honestly, that's where we need to get. If it's legalized, it's legal."

Collins has been Treasurer Deborah Goldberg's point person on pot since voters legalized the drug last year and had begun to prepare a regulatory structure for the new industry until oversight of marijuana was removed by the Legislature from the treasurer's direct auspices. Collins previously worked as chief of staff and general counsel to Sen. Richard Moore and served as chairman of the Webster School Committee.

Commissioner Shaleen Title asked Collins how he would respond to criticism that his candidacy for the job smacks of insider advantage or that the CCC did not conduct a broad enough search for an executive director.

"I would say that I have spent two years on this subject, two years proactively reaching out to anyone who would engage me," Collins said, detailing how he first learned of the possible ballot question in August 2015 and launched his own study of the issue. He said his knowledge of state government would be a benefit to the nascent commission.

"I think that's the first time I've ever been labeled an insider. I know a lot of areas of state government, naturally, and I know who this agency is going to have to rely on, especially early on," he said.

Hoffman said he and the rest of the commissioners will use Wednesday to call the references that Birenbaum, Bradley and Collins provided and cautioned the commissioners against discussing the candidates amongst themselves outside of a public meeting.

The CCC has scheduled a meeting for noon Thursday in Room 222 of the State House to deliberate publicly and to vote on which candidate it will extend a job offer to.

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