Business & Tech

Former state public safety official to head pot company

Andrea Cabral, testifying on Beacon Hill when she was the state’s secretary of public safety.
Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/File 2014
Andrea Cabral testifying on Beacon Hill when she was the state’s secretary of public safety.

Andrea Cabral had a long and successful career in Massachusetts law enforcement, serving stints as a county prosecutor and sheriff before getting appointed as the state’s top public safety official in 2012.

So you could be forgiven for not predicting this: she now runs a pot company.

Cabral is now chief executive of Ascend Cannabis, a startup that plans to open a retail shop in Boston and a growing facility in Athol.

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And far from being an incongruous turn in her career, Cabral sees the new job as a natural extension of her efforts to reduce recidivism and keep communities safe from crime. In what would be an unprecedented move, her company plans to work directly with the Suffolk County Sheriff to hire people recently released from jail as workers at its cultivation facility and retail pot shop.

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“This is going to be a very different kind of cannabis company,” Cabral said in an interview. “Clearly our purpose is to sell cannabis, but because Massachusetts took such a strong approach to social equity in its regulations, there’s a real opportunity to balance profits against conscience.”

Ascend Cannabis is seeking local approval and state marijuana licenses for the Boston store, near North Station, and Athol facility, and scouting additional retail locations. The company is the brainchild of Boston-based investor Abner Kurtin, whose resume includes a stint at the huge, successful hedge fund Baupost Group.

Hiring will be modest at first, with perhaps five or six ex-offenders who have relatively minor charges and have completed job training and anti-recidivism programs.

But Cabral’s long-term vision is more expansive: building a larger jobs program between the marijuana industry and the state’s courts and probation systems.

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Cannabis companies can provide ex-offenders with steady, good-paying gigs, which in turn should reduce the likelihood they end up back in jail. Ultimately, Cabral believes, the program could keep families together and help stabilize communities with high arrest rates.

“Whole families have suffered for generations because of the way we approached the war on cannabis,” Cabral said. “One of the best ways to break that cycle is to help someone get and maintain a stable job, but that’s usually the hardest condition of probation to meet.”

Suffolk County Sheriff Steven Tompkins, Cabral’s college classmate and longtime friend, is enthusiastic, predicting the partnership will reduce the recidivism rate at Suffolk County facilities, which is now about 46 percent.

“We’re a nation of second chances — or at least that’s what they used to tell us,” Tompkins said in an interview. “It’s incumbent on us to do these types of things and not just say to people when they leave jail, ‘good luck, hope you don’t come back.’”

Cabral said Ascend will also fund grants to nonprofits that work with children whose parents have been incarcerated, and is exploring a loan program to pot entrepreneurs from low-income and minority communities.

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The plan is a long way from Cabral’s start in the late 1980s as a county prosecutor. Back then, she admits, her views on drug policy weren’t particularly nuanced.

“I was coming from a perspective where marijuana had always been illegal,” she said. “I was very sure I knew who the bad guys were and who the good guys were, because court is adversarial and you don’t have much contact with the defendant.”

Cabral’s views on marijuana evolved as she learned about its harm relative to other drugs, and to alcohol, whose damage she witnessed as a prosecutor and domestic violence advocate.

Then, while serving on the state’s Cannabis Advisory Board last year, Cabral became convinced the level of state oversight will protect public safety.

“We made alcohol illegal once and it was spectacular failure,” Cabral said. “If we’ve dealt with all the problems alcohol consumption has brought our country since then, we can handle pot.”

Dan Adams can be reached at daniel.adams@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Dan_Adams86.