BOSTON – The Cannabis Control Commission on Thursday pushed off for a month its consideration of new draft regulations for the marijuana industry as the agency tries to keep up with a crushing workload amid a shortage of staff.
The CCC, which has held public hearings and policy debates in recent months as it endeavors to revise and republish the regulations governing both the medical and non-medical marijuana sectors, was planning to begin discussing its rewritten regulations Thursday. Instead, Chairman Steve Hoffman started the meeting by announcing that the new regs aren't ready yet and will be considered next month.
"We've got a lot of very complicated issues to work through. The objective of the regulations is to ensure that the policy decisions we made about a month ago, that they're explicitly embedded in the regulations and that translation process is complicated," he said. "There are a lot of details to work out and we just thought we really needed more time to do it carefully, thoroughly and to do it right."
The CCC now plans to unveil and discuss its rewritten rules during two meetings to be held the last week of June. Hoffman said the commission's "expected timeline" is that it will discuss and vote on the draft regs in late June, immediately begin a public comment period, launch a series of public hearings on the draft regs and then vote to finalize the rules "right after Labor Day, maybe mid-September."
Two things in particular held the CCC back from having the revised industry regulations ready for Thursday's meeting -- the complexity of the policy issues that must now be boiled down into regulatory language and the fact that the CCC isn't yet at full staffing but is "operating at or above full capacity" as the agency tries to rewrite its regulations while still standing up a relatively new industry, Hoffman said.
The chairman said the issues of home delivery and social consumption, or a policy that would allow adults to use marijuana in some form in a social setting, are among those gumming up the works. The CCC this month approved, on a 3-2 vote, a policy allowing for a social consumption pilot program in a limited number of communities.
The commission drafted regulations in 2018 to allow so-called social consumption but put the issue on the back burner after pushback from Gov. Charlie Baker. The governor this year has indicated he could support a pilot program.
"It's not that there are debates yet to be had, it's just the work of translating policy into regulations is very time consuming," Hoffman said Thursday.
While the CCC's staff is working to translate the commission's policy decisions into regulations, the same employees are also working to inspect and license marijuana establishments around the state.
"We need to get more people and more capability, and we're doing that," Hoffman said, adding that the CCC is currently hiring inspectors, licensing staff and legal personnel. He added, "Right now we're at 60, plus or minus, but the headcount plan originally had about 75 people so it's not that we need more people than we thought we needed, we just need to find the time to hire them."
Ahead of Thursday's meeting, the CCC had considered and approved 157 marijuana business license applications since it began that process last June. Another 263 applications have been submitted in full to the commission and are awaiting a completeness review or third-party responses, like information from the host community or the results of background checks, Executive Director Shawn Collins said Thursday.
Since the first two legal non-medical marijuana retail stores opened in November, the CCC has authorized an additional 17 retail stores to open their doors. Cumulatively, the retailers have sold roughly $130 million worth of marijuana products. Hoffman said in December that he expected four to eight new retail stores coming online each month, but the CCC has trailed that pace.
"I think we have a good process, I just think we need more people," the chairman said Thursday when asked how the CCC's licensing process was going. He said both branches of the Legislature approved the CCC's full request during fiscal year 2020 budget deliberations and that the agency's budget is sufficient to support the necessary staff.
And as its staff contends with working on the new regulations and churning through new license applications, the CCC is about to run into a new responsibility: considering and approving the annual license renewals for the companies that were among the first to receive a license.
The CCC's regulations state that a marijuana business license "shall expire one year after the date of issuance of the provisional license and annually thereafter." The CCC voted on June 21, 2018, to issue its first provisional license, to Sira Naturals.
"It's coming up. We're planning for it, that's part of why we're obviously trying to staff up as quickly as we can," Hoffman said. "I think we've got to be very careful about prioritization so we've got applications for provisional licenses, applications for final licenses, applications for change of control, applications for renewal, agent applications -- so we've got to make sure we have adequate resources and we're prioritizing and focusing in the appropriate sequence."
The chairman then added, "I'm comfortable that we have that process in place, but we do need more people, no question."