Shawn Collins knows how to make the most of an opportunity.

A government course during sophomore year required students to work as interns, and Collins gained real-world experience at the State House. He made such an impression that, when the semester-long gig ended, he was offered a full-time position.

Fast forward to today. Collins, BS ’08, JD ’13, was appointed the first-ever executive director of the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission in October 2017. This newly formed state agency is responsible for regulating adult-use marijuana in the commonwealth.

Weighty responsibility

“This is really a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said Collins. “I am lucky to be in a position to build a state agency from the ground up.”

With legal marijuana sales set to begin this summer in Massachusetts, Collins is leading an agency evaluating applications and issuing licenses for startup marijuana dispensaries.

The commission also is developing a comprehensive cannabis research agenda, which includes consideration of public health, public safety, and youth access.

It also is building a social equity program focused on communities that have been disproportionately impacted by marijuana enforcement and applicants with prior drug convictions.

Some of the biggest agency challenges involve dealing with a complex public policy area that is “unsettled and actively evolving” and the conflict with federal law that still holds marijuana as illegal, says Collins.

“I have described what we do as building an airplane while in the air—or building a fire engine on the way to the fire,” he said.

Course requirement proves life-changing

In retrospect, Collins sees his sophomore-year State House experience as pivotal.

“That internship opened the door for me,” he said. “After that, more doors have opened up and allowed me to explore other opportunities.”

Working 40 hours a week at the State House forced Collins to complete his Suffolk undergraduate and law degrees at night. This balancing act was a major challenge and provided a lifelong lesson in time management.

But he said his way was eased by supportive Suffolk professors and a university that was accommodating to working students.

Collins’ career path had him serving as a key adviser during development of the commonwealth’s landmark health care reform efforts when he was chief of staff and general counsel to former state Sen. Richard Moore.

He also served as assistant treasurer and director of policy and legislative affairs for state Treasurer Deborah Goldberg, and he spearheaded the research and policy agenda setting the stage for Massachusetts' legalization of adult-use marijuana.

Alumni honors

Collins and nine others who graduated from Suffolk within the past decade were honored at a recent 10 Under 10 event for young alumni making a difference in their careers, communities, and to the University.

Looking back at his college days, Collins is thankful that Suffolk exposed him to perspectives, cultures, and ideas that have allowed him to grow and prosper.

“Taking time to appreciate those differences—and to respect them—has helped me build relationships and open doors that might otherwise have been closed to me,” he said.

—Tony Ferullo