At first glance, probably the most interesting thing about Michigan’s cannabis regulation is the amount of detailed public reporting that’s made available to the public. In most states you’re lucky if regulators will tell you the public names of companies that own the licenses. In Michigan, the state reports not only the company name, but any person who owns at least 5% of the license. And if there’s a shell company owner, the owners of the shell have to be reported on, and so on, until you get to a real person.
In contrast, take Missouri, now that some licenses have been sold and are no longer with the original winner, there’s no public list of license holders. In Illinois, Ohio, Massachusetts, and most other states, the owners behind company names aren’t revealed to the public, or through a freedom of information request. Even more of a contrast, in New Hampshire and Pennsylvania, state regulators won’t allow anyone to visit an operating facility without regulatory approval, and they never give approval.
That’s not the only remarkable piece of information released to the public. Every month state regulators produce exhaustive reports showing not only how much cannabis was sold, but how much was medical versus adult use, whether it was flower, shake, infused edibles, or what have you. You can learn how many licenses have been issued, applied for, and how long it took for the license applications to be processed.
This fire hose of information is due to one man, Andrew Brisbo, Michigan’s soon-to-be former chief cannabis regulator, a stickler for detail, transparency, and for clear metrics for success. At the same time, he managed the explosive growth of his state’s cannabis industry. In June, the last month reported, Michigan dispensaries sold over $209 million of weed – their best month yet and capping off $2.3 billion of sales over the last 12 months. And because the state is also experiencing record low prices – about $1,900 a pound for flower at retail – Michigan is moving an amazing volume of legal weed at the same time.
So then this week’s announcement that Brisbo is leaving his position to head up Michigan’s Building Codes division, seems like a shocker doesn’t it?
Funny too, since up until a couple weeks ago, Brisbo was blanketing social media with his usual cheeriness about cannabis. Pictures of his weed socks (I’m told he has a collection), visits to dispensaries, and a genuinely positive style of engagement with an industry that obviously fascinates him. Until August, he was bulking up thumb muscle, tweeting away at a regular pace.
And then it suddenly stopped. Almost like someone delivered him some bad news about his job, right?
Asking around, it’s hard to find someone – anyone – who has something bad to say about him.
“He had a sense of compassion that seems lacking in most government officials,” said Rick Thompson, who heads up Michigan NORML.
“I’m nervous of who’s going to be in there next, because Andrerw did a great job. I enjoyed communicating with him, he listened,” said Amie Carter, a caregiver and activist for cannabis patients.
“He has been a fantastic leader,” said Shelly Edgerton, now the board chair of the Michigan Cannabis Manufacturers Association, but also once the director of the state agency that oversaw what is now the Cannabis Regulatory Agency, and briefly Brisbo’s boss. “He’s done wonders for getting this industry off and running,” she said.
Brisbo, is of course, not saying much right now – nor may he ever, since he’s headed into another job for the state, as director of the state’s Bureau of Construction Codes. But there hasn’t been a reticent public email from him to his team or the industry to thank everyone, as is traditional for folks gladly moving on to new jobs.
But hey, maybe he’s burned out, and ready for a different gig. Construction codes, I’m told, have a big role to play when it comes to climate change, building energy efficiency, and building costs. There’s a lot to tackle there – and with the benefit some say, of not being so much in the public eye.
Governor Gretchen Whitmer, to whom Brisbo ultimately reports, isn’t saying much though, other than oblique applause for “the team” in a statement released Tuesday, “We are proud of the incredible team at the Cannabis Regulatory Agency for establishing Michigan as one of the top cannabis markets in the country.”
Did I mention that Brisbo is the current president of the national Cannabis Regulators Association?
Seems like everyone except Gov. Whitmer has praise for Andrew Brisbo.
So where could he have gone wrong?
There are a few ways he went crosswise with industry over the last year. He floated – but then quickly pulled back – a plan to legalize hemp-derived THC oil. The move came soon after processors complained about tons of illegal oil flooding the market, but growers pushed back hard, since hemp-derived oil would make non-flower grade biomass essentially worthless.
Then there were his multiple attempts to merge the medical and adult use markets. Michigan is one of the few states to maintain totally separate systems for each one. Brisbo tried to gain legislative support in 2020, then again in 2021, but the pressures of pandemic legislating (nobody stayed in Lansing for very long), and the need to gain three-quarters support in the legislature to change law created by a state referendum, proved to be too high a barrier to clear.
But the big one, the grand daddy problem of them all, was last November’s Viridis Labs recall. It’s been a mess from the beginning – and it’s still hard to say what exactly happened.
The recall enacted by Brisbo’s agency, which included $230 million of product, started with a wonky announcement to producers who had impacted product. Then, it wasn’t clear what exactly was being recalled. Then, part of the recall was rescinded. Next, Viridis Labs sued the state, and the state didn’t exactly fight back. Missing were state troopers, top flight assistant attorneys general, and the kind of resources government rolls out when the top people decide they really want to bring the hammer down.
Because the Cannabis Regulatory Agency doesn’t really have enforcement power, the attorney general does, it almost seems like Brisbo’s agency was left high and dry over the recall.
Since then, Michigan cannabis consumers and operators alike have been unsettled about the quality of testing in Michigan.
Viridis still stands, by the way. And operators tell me they’re still the dominant testing company in the state, with about 50% of the total testing volume.
Now Andrew Brisbo is leaving the cannabis business. Who do you think won that battle?
The executive order creating the Cannabis Regulatory Agency (originally called “Marijuana Regulatory Agency”), establishes the director position as “appointed by the governor with the advice and consent of the senate,” and serving “at the pleasure of the governor”.
That means Gov. Whitmer can appoint anyone she likes.
Rick Thompson, at NORML, is concerned Whitmer will reach into law enforcement to fill the job.
“The real push has been to increase enforcement, that’s what makes us think there will be a law enforcement person. That would have a chilling impact on the entire cannabis industry in Michigan,” Thompson said.
But MCMA’s Edgerton points out, it’ll be a while until a replacement is found.
“You’ve got four months until the end of the year, and then you have November elections. Anyone is subject to advice and consent, it will be difficult to fill the position in the interim period,” she said. “Would you leave some great job, even if you wanted to do this, if you thought in a month or December you’d be out of a job? I don’t think people would necessarily want to do that.”
It’s also hard to fill cannabis regulatory positions these days. After three months, Illinois is still missing a head of dispensary regulation, and Massachusetts’ only has an interim chair of its Cannabis Control Commission.
So, it looks like January is when Michiganders might get an inkling of who will run their state’s cannabis regulation. That seems like an eternity in this business.