Last month Brian Hanna was appointed Interim Director of Michigan’s Cannabis Regulatory Agency following the surprise removal of the agency’s founding head, Andrew Brisbo. Where Brisbo was a career Michigan bureaucrat at ease with statuary jargon, Hanna arrives with a military intelligence and police background, laser-focused on a short-term enforcement push.
Handed the reins of the agency’s 168 personnel for a very brief period, it’s hard to say if Gov. Gretchen Whitmer will give Hanna a full-time appointment if she wins reelection next month, as polling suggests she will. But certainly, Hanna’s tenure will bring change, since the Governor felt the need to switch horses so close to the election.
To give us a sense of how Michigan’s new top cannabis regulator thinks, Hanna sat down for a one-on-one interview in his agency’s offices in Lansing. It wasn’t a surprise that much of the discussion was about enforcement. On occasion his communications chief, David Harns, also broke into the conversation to add details.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Grown In: You have a background with the state police.
Brian Hanna: I do. Started my career in 2002. I was working with the Kalamazoo county sheriff’s office. I had an atypical law enforcement career. I started off at the airport, then working in the jail, and at the age of 25 I decided I wanted to do more, so I joined the military. I became an officer in the U.S. Army Reserves and gained a military intelligence background and with civil affairs. And then after Afghanistan, and I started a family with my wife, I was like, “I’m done with sworn service with the military,” so I became an analyst full-time ten years ago.
I did some defense contracting, was an intelligence analyst with the state police as an intelligence manager and then I came to the CRA. Came to the Agency in 2017, took a little bit of a break, went back to MSP, did some analysis and then I came back to this position.
Grown In: How does all that inform the position you’re in now? How does that help you do your job?
Hanna: That’s a good question. I have the combination of law enforcement and all-source intelligence analysis. It was a great fit, especially when I was managing inspections and investigations. I brought that background knowledge of taking various information from all sources and how to develop an investigation and shape that with regulatory matters.
Now, in this acting role I take that experience and the staff that I worked with before, and I had the great benefit of working with Andrew Brisbo as well, during my time here. And working with the current staff figuring out what can we do strategy-wise and tactics-wise to, I would say, improve or look at our processes as far as enforcement goes and see how we can effectuate change. How can we improve our presence in the field?
Grown In: When you were sworn in, did you get any specific directives from the Governor?
Hanna: Help shaping basically what we’re working on right now. Really focus on the first 90 days, and the rolling 90 days and really two main goals: Working together in partnership with the industry and governances. Goal one, listen to stakeholders to figure out what’s not working, what’s not, what can improve.
And when I say stakeholders, all the associations, social equity groups, licensees, you name it. Listen to everybody and hear the opinions. And internal stakeholders in the agency. What’s working? What can improve? What is working that we can sustain.
And the other goal that we’re hearing from the industry is that there’s illicit product in the regulated market and we want to find that and expose it and make it known.
Grown In: You’ve promised increased enforcement during your tenure. So far there’s been the widely publicized arrest of Michael Thue in Traverse City.
David Harns: Just to be clear that wasn’t us.
Hanna: Yeah, that wasn’t us. It was the state police. I can explain that.
Grown In: Please do.
Hanna: They have their mission set, Michigan State Police, and we have our mission set. Are there times when our missions coincide? Yes, they do. But I didn’t know about Thue until I saw it in the papers. That wasn’t our agency.
What we’re focused on is regulation of the licensed businesses. Specifically the medical marijuana and adult use marijuana businesses. Are there times when we work together with Michigan State Police in sharing information, and things related to the regulated environment? Yes. But I don’t run their operations. They also have their own separate mission sets too. I would talk to MSP about that.
Grown In: That’s interesting. Can you talk a little bit about how the two agencies, not just MSP but also the AG’s office, how they work with you. One of the concerns I’ve heard is that the AG’s office isn’t necessarily devoting resources to chase down some of these things. For example, CRA might have leads, the AG isn’t able to follow up. The MSP is supposed to go and arrest people, but the AG needs to be ready to prosecute it. Can you explain that a bit?
Hanna: Yeah, thanks for the opportunity to explain. Think of the entire regulated environment as an ecosystem. When you say marijuana or cannabis, there are different categories. There’s regulated, pure illicit and criminal. Are there intersections of both? That’s what we’re working together on.
We work great with the AG’s office, they are fantastic in working with us in the regulated environment. I would say compliance process, in moving our cases where they need to go, and Michigan State Police, they have their role, purely on the criminal side. Is there a time for working together? Yes there is. If there is a certain situation where we feel it’s warranted for both in the entire ecosystem I mentioned.
But in totality, they have their mission, we have our mission. We have great cooperation and communication. I came from there and I know a lot of them personally.
Just like with the rest of the stakeholders: Communication, including the AG, is key. I can’t speak per se in how they’re able to move criminal cases. That’s more their side. I’d say talk to MSP on that.
As far as the regulated environment, I think we have great cooperation with the State Police and the AG’s office.
Grown In: What are some other enforcement actions we should be aware of that you consider successes?
Hanna: We’re listening to stakeholders. Still our licensing process is moving like a machine. We’re having an increased presence in the field than we have been. And we’re going to continue to do that and increase that. We have more staff coming in. We’re hiring six more regulation agents, which are investigators, and two more regulation officers that are inspectors. We’re bringing in a new laboratory scientist. We’re bringing in an analyst. When you increase your presence on the front end, you also need to increase your presence on the back end as well to process that information. Like, we have two analysts coming in the legal section.
I think those are wins, and that’s moving forward. We’ve also had language put into the boilerplate given to us by the legislature, with a request for proposal of a pilot program to look at data analytics as far as compliance and tax information. I think that could be a tool that would be useful as well.
Grown In: Earlier this year, there was a discussion, I’m not sure you can call it a proposal, of regulation of converted hemp oil to THC. My understanding was that was a recognition by this office that yes, there is a lot of illegal oil hitting the market. Why don’t we regulate it rather than put a stop to it? Sounds to me like you are now given a mandate to put a stop to it, and find this illegal oil and stop it from penetrating the market. How do you go about doing something like that?
Harns: Those statements you just made, I’m not sure those are safe assumptions.
Grown In: OK.
Harns: Like that first one you made about why the hemp to oil thing, Andrew [Brisbo] was the one that brought that topic up and ultimately put it to bed. But I wouldn’t want to speak for Andrew’s thoughts on that.
Hanna: I wasn’t going to clarify, it depends on what “it” is. We’re hearing of, in general, illicit oil that’s coming into the market. I don’t want to play my cards. We have open investigations. I would be a bad move to tell everybody this is specifically what we’re doing, but I can speak in generalities.
We’re hearing the chatter of how this could be coming in, we’re evaluating that, and we hope to find that. You do that through various ways and methods. You have my all-source intelligence background. We have multiple sections that look at different points of view. And we’re having them work together, communicate, function together as a team, to share information real time and find new information. We also have more staff, we’re going to have an on-field, in person presence. All of those things will come together in combination.
Again, I can’t talk about specifics, open investigations, but we hope to make some gains known very soon.
Grown In: Your predecessor made CRA into one of the most transparent cannabis regulatory agencies in the country, with voluminous amounts data every month. Should we expect that to continue, or do you have some changes in mind?
Hanna: I see no need to change that. I agree with transparency. Part of that transparency is talking to stakeholders and keeping engaged with them. We’re still doing that. And part of that is explaining why we did certain things. We received feedback about how long it took for House of Mary Jane press release on their suspension to go out. Why did it take so long? It’s a valid critique.
We’re taking that back and understanding what we could do to effectuate a faster response while protecting health and safety is important. Receiving feedback and having dialogue with different stakeholders is important.
Putting out information, the monthly reports are still happening, the quarterly reports are still happening, they are part of statutory or legislative obligation. I’m not looking to tweak any of that part.
Grown In: Cannabis wholesale prices are at a historic low in Michigan – and may go even lower. How do you view your responsibility as a regulator when it comes to market conditions?
Hanna: You just talked about market conditions, we’re kind of limited in what we can do in that capacity. We have to follow our laws and rules. However, we can facilitate discussions. In the last public meeting, Andrew led the discussion about a moratorium and received feedback on that. It’s valuable to just get people talking.
Do we have a position on that? Well, our position is to have people discuss ideas about that. We have to at the end of the day respond to the legislature.
I would say if anyone wanted to talk about a moratorium as a solution, you really need to consider the details. At what point do you start it? At what point do you lift it? How would it be viewed from various stakeholder positions? Because there would be very different opinions across the board. I would say the devil’s in the details on that.
But we like having those discussions.
The other aspect is that in the same public comment when is the first time I’ve heard it mentioned in mass, is so many people talking about illicit product coming on market. I think the moratorium and the idea of illicit product coming onto market, those are two concepts that come together.
Grown In: Is there going to be an administrative position on moratorium?
Hanna: I would say ask the legislature.
Grown In: So, no.
Hanna: I really don’t know. We’re open to discussions that we’ve been facilitating.
Grown In: From your understanding of the market, is there a persistent connection between Michigan’s caregivers and the underground market?
Hanna: I really don’t know. I think being able to answer that either quantitatively or qualitatively, I think we would have to do some of the new investigative approaches we’re working on.
Harns: So we don’t have any licensing authority over caregivers. All we do is register them. We have no authority to see how they’re doing. Check up on them. We just make a list. And if they meet qualifying conditions, we issue a card. So we wouldn’t have any knowledge of that.
Grown In: But one of the abilities of CRA, I forget the exact wording, it’s to attempt to prohibit or not assist the illicit market. So the regulatory decision making is connected to that. And so you have a knowledge of the caregiver structure, and one of the regular accusations made by elements of the industry about caregivers is they are connected to the underground market. If you had evidence of that, is that something you would refer to the state police or the Attorney General’s office?
Hanna: I think we have to look at each individual investigation we’re doing. I know that’s a very general answer, but that’s the honest truth. There are so many ways you could pull a thread on an investigation. I think we’re open to the truth. Finding what really is happening and where it leads.
It’s hard to speculate. Yeah, I hear rumors just like you do too. It’s hard to speculate the causation or actuality of a rumor until we investigate it and expose it and analyze the truth and see where it goes from there.
Grown In: Operators complain that one of the root causes of Michigan’s market problems is that there are still too few municipalities that have opted-in. What can be done to increase the number of opt-in municipalities?
Hanna: We have the information about who has opted-in on our website. It’s a municipality rule, what they choose to opt-in or opt-out. However we do have discussions with municipalities on a regular basis. Any time they want information on how it works, we’re open. We have discussions with the Michigan Municipality League.
Harns: CRA can’t give legal advice to municipalities. We get asked all the time, should we set up this ordinance, how does this ordinance work? We can’t give them that advice.
Grown In: Do you have any particular new plans or initiatives we should be aware of?
Hanna: Just focused on the 90 days and the rolling 90 days, and those two main goals. Listen to stakeholders and find that illicit product. We keep hearing the rumors and we keep asking for information that could be useful. That’s the main focus right now.
That first goal, to listen to stakeholders, that’s a big goal. Which is part of facilitating businesses at the same time as protecting consumer safety. We talk to consumer advocacy groups as well.
Grown In: Do you want to stay as a permanent director?
Hanna: I stay at the pleasure of the Governor. I’m proud to be in this role and look forward to carrying the torch that Andrew Brisbo started. He helped create a great agency. I’m focused on the day-to-day right now. Whatever happens: I’m open minded, whatever I can do for public service.
Grown In: Is there anything else I should know?
Hanna: I would say stay tuned. I understand that giving general answers on our new stance. I’d like to say up front, this is what we’re going to do, but I also have to keep open investigations tucked in until they’re closed.
Part of our goal of investigating this stuff is to expose it. There are various ways of exposing it that we’re evaluating. We will communicate that very soon.