This week, Governor Charlie Baker appointed State Senator Jennifer Flanagan, a Leominster Democrat, to become one of the five-member Cannabis Control Commission. She is set to resign her current seat by month end to take on the responsibility of licensing retail marijuana businesses and regulating the growing recreational weed industry.
Interestingly, Ms. Flanagan opposed the ballot question in 2016, which made recreational use legal for adults, and has been focusing primarily on substance abuse and mental health issues during her time in Legislature. Her new duties commence on September 1 this year. The Senate will now hold a special election to fill her seat, which will be its third since beginning its session in January.
Ms. Flanagan is the second senator this year to leave Legislature for a new job. Before election to the Senate in 2008 as representative of the Middlesex and Worcester District, which includes Gardner, Fitchburg, Leominster, Bolton, Berlin, Lunenburg, Lancaster, Westminster, Sterling, Townsend and two Clinton precincts, she served four years in the House.
Her new position at the five-member Cannabis Control Commission comes with a $120,000 annual salary. Governor Baker speaks very highly of Ms. Flanagan, calling her a “champion and important partner” to the administration’s effort to expand substance abuse prevention programs, as well as to combat and treat the widespread opioid epidemic afflicting Massachusetts.
According to a statement made by Gov. Baker: “Her experience and service will be invaluable to the Cannabis Control Commission and to the people of Massachusetts. As the Commission, our administration, the Treasurer, Attorney General, lawmakers, educators, and public health and safety professionals will work together to ensure the effective, responsible and safe implementation of adult use of marijuana in the Commonwealth.”
Aside from her legislative work, Ms. Flanagan has a master’s degree in mental health counselling from Fitchburg State University. Those in the district she has been serving for over 10 years reacted to news of her resignation from the Senate on Wednesday with mixed feelings. During Wednesday’s announcement of her resignation, Ms. Flanagan said:
“I just want to say thank you to everyone I have been able to represent. It has been a privilege and honor for me to serve in the Legislature, for not only the Worcester and Middlesex District, but also the 4th Worcester District where I started in my hometown of Leominster. It has been such an incredible journey and I hope I left it better than I found it. Right down the line, I have been able to work with amazing representatives from all levels of government and I truly am going to miss it.”
Gardner Mayor, Mark P. Hawke, who has been working with Ms. Flanagan for at least a decade on fixing the city’s issues, considers her departure from Legislature a major loss, one the city would undoubtedly miss. The mayor, a self-described liberal Republican, made news several times for supporting and endorsing Ms. Flanagan, a conservative Democrat. About her, Mr. Hawke said:
“We worked well together, but we did not agree on every issue. She helped the city on several occasions and is a great proponent for the city of Gardner. Jen was highly respected on Beacon Hill as an aide, state representative, and then as senator, so it is not a surprise she got the position. It really suits her, with her spearheading the opioid epidemic and driving towards solutions. I think it is a good fit for her.”
Stephen L. DiNatale, Fitchburg Mayor, who served as state representative for the 3rd Worcester District for nine years and worked closely with Ms. Flanagan for 15 years, called her a “comfortable pair of slippers.” He said, “We worked together and she is a friend, as well. I could just pick up the phone and call her whenever I want. I can let my hair down and say whatever I want and so can she. It is going to be a loss not just for the district, but certainly for Fitchburg.”
Mr. DiNatale also agreed that she is “a perfect fit” for a position on the new panel. He also said, “She is going to be tough to replace, but it is great what she is going on to. It is a perfect fit not just for the Baker administration, but also certainly for her. Now the challenge and focus is on who is going to replace her in the special election.”
The Yes on 4 campaign, which was the team behind the ballot question to legalize cannabis recreationally, expressed worry over the appointment of Ms. Flanagan. Spokesperson James Borghesani made his concerns known via text:
“As he did with the Walpole Police Chief John Carmichael, the governor has placed a legalization opponent on a key regulatory committee. We hope that Sen. Flanagan will put her personal position aside in order to advance the will of Massachusetts voters.” He also said that he hopes Ms. Flanagan does not hamper progress in cannabis policy.
He further wrote, “I am hopeful that Sen. Flanagan and the governor recognize that voters rejected their position and that their responsibility now is to move the legal system forward without any delays or hindrances.” Gov. Baker selected another opponent of legalization, Chief Carmichael, for the Cannabis Advisory Board, which has the task of working with the commission to regulate the marijuana industry.
Appointing the new commission’s chairperson falls on Treasurer Deborah Goldberg, while Attorney General Maura Healey will fill the remaining positions. September 1 is the deadline to fill all five appointments. Established by voters in the ballot initiative and by Mr. Baker’s signing of bipartisan legislation in July, the Cannabis Control Commission must also set potency limits for edibles, and adopt packaging standards that conform to regulatory health and safety protections.