When former Boston firefighter Sean Berte returned to Roslindale after leaving federal prison in 2010, the neighborhood he grew up in somehow didn’t feel like home anymore.
It had been eight months — a seemingly modest sentence for growing marijuana at his family’s second home in Maine. But it was more than enough time to saddle him with plenty of baggage he didn’t come in with.
There was the extra 65 pounds, thanks to sodium-packed prison meals. There was the felony record that excluded him from most employment, the job his wife lost amid the publicity around Berte’s arrest, and their family’s resulting bankruptcy.
There were the times a car door would close outside at 2 a.m., triggering panicky flashbacks to the night in May 2009 when DEA agents simultaneously raided his Back Bay firehouse, Hyde Park home, and Maine property.
And there were the sidelong looks. The lifelong acquaintances who now pretended not to recognize him at the supermarket.
Berte swore off marijuana, figuring the drug he had relied on since he was a teen to cope with abuse, anxiety, and physical pain had ruined his life. He spent long hours working at a farm in Needham, trying to bury some of the hurt. He started driving to grocery stores in other neighborhoods.
“All the time I felt like I was hiding,” Berte said. “It’s like you’re always trying to explain yourself. . . . But all you want to do is go back to your community and live without having to identify as this, as a felon.”
As it happened, the path back into his community’s good graces required him not to run from his past, but embrace it — as a legitimate marijuana entrepreneur.
In a turnaround that once would have been unthinkable, new state and city policies in Massachusetts recognize the unfairness of past penalties inflicted for marijuana-related activities the state now sanctions following the legalization of cannabis in 2016.
One of the strongest such rules is in Boston, where a new ordinance requires the city to issue half of all its marijuana business licenses to “equity applicants:” people who meet three of six criteria related to the drug war, including having a past marijuana conviction or living in a neighborhood with disproportionately high drug arrest rates.
For Berte and his business partner Armani White, a Roxbury community organizer and youth advocate who was himself twice arrested for marijuana possession, that policy has delivered. In September, the five-member Boston Cannabis Board voted unanimously to issue their firm, Evergreen Farms, the city’s first-ever license for a marijuana store in Hyde Park, cuing up a 2021 ribbon-cutting.
The vote was a microcosm of the drastic shift in voters’ attitudes about marijuana over the past decade. It was also a surreal moment for two men whose passion for marijuana had previously seen them punished, not rewarded.
“Coming from a Black family where both my parents were [previously] incarcerated, this kind of opportunity is one crazy dream,” White said. “I have to pinch myself sometimes. But it’s justice served. It’s redemption.”
White and Berte met during a 2017 drive to sign up entrepreneurs for one of the state Cannabis Control Commission’s equity programs. Berte also worked on the 2016 Question 4 legalization campaign, having reconsidered his no-more-weed vow three years earlier in a characteristically impulsive moment: a friend had texted him a news story detailing early applicants for the state’s then-new medical marijuana program, including one whose top security consultant was a Boston police officer — the same cop who first arrested him and his friends as teens, tagging one boy with a marijuana possession charge.
“I want to put all of my effort in life into getting into this business,” Berte recalled telling his wife. “I said, ‘there’s no way this man who made a good living putting people in jail just for smoking weed is now going to make six figures off it legally. That’s completely unacceptable.’ “
White and Berte got along immediately; yet even they have trouble explaining their odd-couple chemistry.
“I guess we recognized each other’s drives and had similar perspectives on the world — that it should have more justice,” said White, the more measured of the two. “We’re free spirits, but we have a commitment to our community and our families.”
“Plus,” White added, “his kids like me.”
“And my wife likes you,” Berte interjected, “which is even more important.”
“I was going to wait for you to say it,” White laughed.
The two also bonded over having been on the receiving end of the country’s harsh drug laws.
While the DEA raid on Berte’s firehouse made for juicy headlines, White’s experience was in some ways more representative of the millions of marijuana arrests in the United States, which were — and still are — carried out along strikingly racial lines.
White was busted in 2011 for possession on the campus of Wesleyan University in Connecticut, where he was a freshman. Police officers came to his dorm room to investigate a string of laptop thefts, telling him they figured the Black kid from the city must know something about it.
White, an excellent student determined to graduate and break from his parents’ struggles, hadn’t stolen anything. But the baseless search of his room yielded a grinder and tiny bag of marijuana flower.
White ultimately wouldn’t serve time. Still, his arrest — which he hid from his parents — had consequences, jeopardizing his financial aid and forcing him to miss class for court hearings and mandatory anti-drug seminars.
“The first assignment was to write my obituary as if I had died from overdosing on marijuana,” White said. “It was ridiculous. But I had to take it seriously, because if I failed it would affect my whole future.”
The ordeal spurred White to step up his activism, eventually leading him to the forum where he met Berte and first conceived of getting into the legal cannabis business.
Getting from dream to license proved harder and longer than either expected, with the city changing its approval process midstream and the nascent firm initially struggling to raise capital.
Evergreen Farms had one secret weapon as it prepared to face the Cannabis Board, however. The company managed to win an endorsement from the Hyde Park Neighborhood Association — a group that one wouldn’t exactly expect to be enthused about a weed store run by a felon and an activist.
How’d they pull that one off? Pure perseverance: After giving a presentation to the association in 2018, Berte continued to attend its monthly meetings for years, becoming a fixture in the back row.
“The president at the time said, ‘if you want to be a part of the community, don’t hightail it out of here — sit . . . down and stay for the rest of the meeting,’ " Berte recalled. “I’m thinking, ‘Seriously? My family moved to Hyde Park in 1889. But if you want me to prove this is what I really want . . . I’ll do it.’ I never missed a meeting from that point forward.”
Often, after the neighborhood association’s agenda wrapped up, members would pull Berte aside to question him about his business and cannabis itself. Trust developed.
“It’s more than just showing up,” White said, explaining the pair’s approach to the community. “It’s that they see who we are. We’re the people from the neighborhood. People want to see folks like us who have been through the ringer have a chance.”
While they pursue a final license from the state, Berte and White are also researching worker-owned and cooperative business structures, determined to give back and continue their advocacy for the expungement of past marijuana convictions.
Berte said that while the company’s local licensure “helped make the chip on my shoulder disintegrate a little bit,” he can’t abide that thousands of Americans remain imprisoned for marijuana, while millions more carry permanent records.
“It doesn’t matter how long I’m a ‘good citizen,’ " he said, referring to his own felony. “This is my scarlet letter forever, and it’s meant to be like that. All because I grew a [expletive] plant. If this [store] doesn’t happen, I’ve got nothing to fall back on. . . . So I want to keep fighting.”
“I’m going to be a lot less timid now.”