Shannon O’Brien ’77 takes over as head regulator of the state’s complicated legal marijuana industry
Shannon O’Brien ’77 was a fourth grader at Easthampton’s Immaculate Conception School when her teacher Louise Meisner predicted that someday she would be “the first lady governor of Massachusetts.” Given that young Shannon’s father, grandfather, and great-grandfather had all been successful in state politics, it wasn’t implausible—and indeed, in 2002, O’Brien, then serving as state Treasurer and Receiver General, became the Democratic nominee for governor, eventually losing in the general election to Mitt Romney.
But even Ms. Meisner might be surprised to see where O’Brien has ended up today. As the new Chair of the state’s Cannabis Control Commission (CCC), she runs the agency regulating the state’s five-year-old legal marijuana industry, whose 500-plus dispensaries now bring in some $1 billion a year selling a substance that the federal government still views as a dangerous drug. Some might say it’s a job that makes governor look easy.
“It’s a lot,” acknowledges O’Brien, whose commission not only administers the complex licensing process for growers, distributors, manufacturers, testing labs, dispensaries, and others, but also manages the medical marijuana program, disseminates the latest cannabis research, educates the public on cannabis health and safety issues, and works to repair the social inequities of past cannabis laws. “Massachusetts is considered to be a model for many other states, but there’s a lot to learn.”
Toward that goal, O’Brien says one of her top priorities as commissioner is to encourage more research into cannabis, in particular promoting research into medical treatments. Making Massachusetts a leader in cannabis research would involve drawing on the state’s many resources and institutions to help patients and consumers navigate what can be a new and confusing landscape. She notes that cannabis’s current federal classification as a Schedule 1 controlled substance has hindered research, but the need is clear. “You know how many drinks you can have. We have certain benchmarks—one ounce per hour, your body can metabolize it,” she notes. “We don’t really know what that is with cannabis.” Another issue for consumers is having confidence in a product’s labeled percentage of THC, cannabis’s principal mood-altering chemical. “It’s a consumer protection issue. If you think you’re getting 35 percent but you’re only getting 28 percent, you’re paying for something you’re not getting. But also, it’s managing how it impacts your ability to function or your ability to end pain.”
O’Brien’s appointment in September 2022 adds another bullet point to an already impressive resume of political and business achievements. Her success dates back to Williston, where she was a three-sport varsity athlete (soccer, basketball, and softball), editor of The Willistonian, member of a student government advisory committee, and recipient of the prestigious White Blazer Award. Like her father, longtime Governor’s Council member and congressional candidate Edward O’Brien ’50, she went from Williston to Yale, where she earned her B.A. in American studies and captained the soccer team.
Though she was immersed in politics from a young age (her great-grandfather was the first Democrat elected to represent the 2nd Hampshire District and her grandfather founded the Hampshire County Democratic Committee), she says she did not feel the call to service until her last semester of law school at Boston University, when she worked with indigent clients in the city’s public defender’s office. “That was where it really hit me, the lessons that I’d learned from my father and my grandfather,” she remembers. But she was also struck by another truth: “You can use the law to help people, but changing the laws to help people is far more impactful.”
Less than a year after graduating from BU, at the age of 26, she was running to represent her great-grandfather’s former district. “Knocking on doors, talking to people—that really inspired me.” She would serve as a state representative for six years and state senator for another two before being elected Treasurer in 1998, the first woman to independently win a statewide general election. After her loss to Romney, O’Brien pivoted to the private sector, working as an investigative journalist with Boston’s WB56, as the CEO of the Boston area Girl Scouts, as Chair of the New York Comptroller’s Pension Reform Commission, as Director of First Commons Bank, and as co-founder and President of a cloud computing company in Canada, as well as serving on numerous corporate boards. In 2009, she launched her own business consultancy, O’Brien Advisory Group.
Prior to joining the CCC, O’Brien—who lives in Whitman with her husband, former state representative Emmet Hayes, and has a 23-year-old daughter, an older step-daughter, and an 8-year-old grandson—helped two local cannabis businesses with the state licensing process, serving as co-owner and CEO of a Greenfield venture. “It wasn’t really something I wanted to do, and I had to be convinced to do it,” she explains. “Back then, there was the stigma, why do I want to get involved with cannabis? But I had the right set of skills and experience to help with that particular business idea.”
O’Brien credits her time at Williston with helping her develop as a leader, in particular, working on The Willistonian under Cathleen Robinson. “It was a great experience for me,” she says. “It helped my writing, and it helped me in terms of leadership, managing a team, how to delegate responsibilities to people and make sure you keep everyone on track. Learning that at a young age was very helpful.”
And those are skills she’ll be drawing upon in her newest position. Among the potentially nettlesome issues that lie ahead for the commission are establishing rules for on-site consumption and furthering the state’s efforts to support cannabis entrepreneurs from communities disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs
But, as Ms. Meisner observed way back in fourth grade, O’Brien is ready to take on big responsibilities. “Someone once joked that I’ve run the lottery—the largest gambling business in Massachusetts. I used to run the Girl Scouts—lots of calories during the spring. And now I’m regulating cannabis. So, basically, all the vices,” she says with a laugh. “This is now a billion dollar a year industry in Massachusetts. My biggest goal that I hope I can accomplish as the Chair of the Cannabis Control Commission is to work to bring together different groups, to make sure Massachusetts is at the forefront of research. I’m trying to find a true home for it here, so we can lead the country.”
MASS. Cannabis by the Numbers
5 years Age of the industry | 500+ Dispensaries | $1B Revenue in 2021