SOMERVILLE — More than four years after the first cannabis retailers opened in Massachusetts, the industry has surpassed $4 billion in sales as new dispensaries and delivery services in the recently legalized business push the market to the brink of saturation.
But an event held Saturday afternoon at a church in Somerville sought to raise awareness about another aspect of marijuana legalization that gets less attention but carries the potential to transform lives. The program, called Changing Legacies, offered free legal assistance to people who hope the easing of marijuana laws have made them eligible to expunge state marijuana offenses from their criminal records or seal them from public view in most cases.
Ryan Dominguez, executive director of MASS CultivatED, a workforce development and jobs training program for the cannabis industry, said the free legal aid is the organization’s most popular program.
Since the group was established in 2020, Dominguez said, 125 people have initiated efforts to have their criminal records expunged or sealed with legal assistance offered by MASS CultivatED. Criminal records make it difficult for people to find jobs or housing, or participate in some volunteer opportunities.
“What we are doing is providing the services directly to impacted individuals from the war on drugs,” Dominguez said in an interview. “We focus on three main components of our core program. That is expungement, education, and employment opportunities.”
Connexion United Methodist Church in Somerville hosted the event, where participants met with attorneys from Greater Boston Legal Services as well as representatives from community programs in Greater Boston. Also sponsoring the event was Ayr Wellness, a cannabis business with dispensaries in seven states, including Massachusetts, where it has locations in Somerville, Back Bay, Watertown, and Needham.
The Rev. Jordan Harris, pastor of Connexion United Methodist Church, said the congregation hosted its first expungement clinic last year.
“For us it’s all about grace,” Harris said. “It’s a way for us to kind of put our space and our money where our theological principles are. It’s reconciliation. Helping folks to come back from a historic injustice.”
Shay Rainey, a project manager for Corporate Social Responsibility at Ayr Wellness, said she was among those who attended the expungement clinic last year. At the time, she was working as a certified nursing assistant.
After attending the event, Rainey said, she successfully petitioned the court to expunge her record and received a fellowship from MASS CultivatED to complete a job training program in the cannabis industry.
“You’re here to expunge,” Rainey told the gathering during a panel discussion. “Whatever you’ve done, whatever you did, that’s in the past and let’s move forward and let’s make a career. Do not stop at a job.”
Ventura Dennis, a senior attorney with Greater Boston Legal Services, said she and a colleague met with about 10 people at Saturday’s event. The law governing the expungement of marijuana offenses from criminal records is narrow, she said, but people who don’t qualify for an expungement might be eligible to have their records sealed, which also affords considerable protection.
A state expungement order requires all records related to the criminal offense be destroyed and mandates Massachusetts to notify the FBI of the expungement, Dennis said. An order to seal a criminal charge limits who can see the offense on a criminal record, and that prevents the information from being shared with most employers, she said.
“Sealing is still a great option that we have in Massachusetts,” Dennis said. “For most people who are trying to get jobs and training and find housing, it works wonders for helping them get back to earning for themselves and finding what they need to give back to their communities.”
State Representative Chynah Tyler of Roxbury, who attended the session, said more work needs to be done to let the public know about options for expunging or sealing criminal records.
“A lot of folks see the justice system or the court system as something that’s working against them,” she said in an interview. “So when you have a tool in your toolbox that works for you, folks sometimes don’t believe it, so we have a lot of work right now initially to do around awareness and we’re doing that.”
Last year the state passed a bond bill that set aside $15 million for the state court system to upgrade its technology to make it easier to identify people who are eligible to have offenses on their criminal records expunged or sealed, Tyler said.
But, she said, the current technology is “not equipped right now to be able to do that.”
The Cannabis Control Commission, the state regulator agency, provides information on its website about how to have a record seal or expunged, writing that most marijuana convictions will not prevent a person from working at a marijuana business in Massachusetts, unless the offense involved distribution to a minor.
Stacey K. Borden, the founder of New Beginnings Re-Entry Inc., in Boston, told the gathering it took her five years to get a job after she spent time in state prison for drug and financial crimes. During the panel discussion, Borden said an employer gave her a chance after she put “my whole prison sentence and everything I did in the prison on my resume.”
In an interview, Borden said people who have criminal records should be able to find a second chance in the marijuana industry.
“Marijuana it’s a plant, and it can heal,” she said. “As Black and brown people we should be able to be in that industry and you should not keep shutting us out even if we made mistakes in our past.”