Tax rates and questions of local control have dominated the conversation surrounding the Legislature’s rewrite of the voter-approved marijuana law. But for former firefighter Sean Berte, who spent eight months in federal prison for cultivating marijuana, the bill spells out something else entirely: a second chance.
Berte initially swore off the drug that he says cost him his job, his life savings, and his freedom. But now, he sees an opportunity in the green-leafed plant — this time, on the right side of the law.
“People make mistakes in their lives, and just because you got caught making that mistake doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be forgiven and given a second chance,” said Berte, a longtime Boston resident.
The marijuana overhaul bill, which the Legislature sent to the governor’s desk Thursday, allows people with certain prior drug convictions to enter the new industry. It also reiterates that those previously charged with marijuana offenses at the state level are eligible to get those records sealed — in other words, have the state hide them from public view and most employers.
It marks a victory for state senators and many social justice activists, who say most of the criminal justice and equity language from the Senate version of the legislation made it into the final compromise bill with the House — minus a provision to outright expunge the records of people with marijuana charges.
The biggest win, according to Shanel Lindsay, an attorney who helped lobby for these measures, was language stipulating that “prior convictions solely for a marijuana-related offense” or other low-level drug offenses cannot disqualify someone from receiving a license or job in a marijuana establishment. That language, which was also in the original ballot question approved by nearly 1.8 million voters in November, allows the previously convicted to participate in what economists predict could be a $1.1 billion state industry by 2020.
Lindsay said it goes farther than sealing or expungement provisions would, because it allows those who have faced federal charges, like Berte, to enter the industry.
“Expungement or sealing would not have helped people with a federal cannabis conviction,” she said.
The provision was part of a broader effort to offer some form of reparations to communities that have experienced the brunt of marijuana-related arrests. Often, these are minority communities; in 2016, an ACLU report found that statewide arrests for possession in 2014 were 3.3 times higher for blacks than whites. For distribution, the gap was nearly double that.
“We have really carried the burden of prohibition for so long, that it only makes sense that we would have equal opportunities in the new industry,” said Lindsay, who was once arrested for marijuana possession.
Beyond the nondiscrimination clause, the bill pledges to promote participation in the pot industry “by people from communities that have previously been disproportionately harmed by marijuana prohibition and enforcement,” and calls on the Cannabis Control Commission to direct some leftover revenue from marijuana licensing, fines, and taxes to programs “in communities disproportionately impacted by high rates of arrest and incarceration for marijuana offenses.”
Such language that essentially admits the former system was flawed is “relatively unusual in a statute,” according to David Rossman, who directs Boston University’s criminal law clinical programs.
The legislation did not incorporate an expungement provision that state Senator Patricia Jehlen, who sat on the conference committee, said had been a Senate priority.
“The House was adamant that they did not want to do that in the marijuana bill; it was a criminal justice question,” she said. “We didn’t think so.”
State Representative Mark J. Cusack, one of the House representatives in the negotiations, said he agreed with senators that lawmakers should take up the expungement question, but as part of criminal justice legislation instead.
Lawmakers will probably take up a major criminal justice package this fall.
For now, however, existing state law allows people with prior marijuana possession convictions to request to have their records sealed, since the drug is now legal.
The Office of the Commissioner of Probation has already shut away several such files upon request since November’s vote, according to Thomas Capasso, probation records unit director . The new legislation doesn’t automatically seal these records, but it calls for a public awareness campaign to draw attention to the option.
Walpole Chief of Police John F. Carmichael said that people charged with marijuana-related offenses are often arrested on other charges as well, so expunging pot convictions — or sealing them, for that matter — would not wipe clean the criminal history of many. Nor should it, he said.
“Someone’s history is their history, and if you violated the law 10 years ago — the law at the time — then you violated the law,” he said. “Just because we’ve changed the law now, doesn’t mean that didn’t happen.”
State Representative Aaron Vega, who originally brought the expungement provision for marijuana offenses to the floor, acknowledges that the pool of Massachusetts residents likely to benefit from it are small (a 2013 report found that only 20 people were convicted for possession that fiscal year statewide). But he said he and the Black and Latino Legislative Caucus will continue to push for expungement as the judiciary committee considers criminal justice legislation this fall.
“We were just trying to make it a little easier for those folks to try to get their life back on track,” he said. “We’ve all made mistakes in our past.”
Since he got out of prison, Berte — who now works as an electrician’s apprentice — has juggled part-time jobs to make ends meet. Meanwhile, he has kept tabs on developments at the State House, and now that a legal pathway into the business seems nigh, Berte said he is contemplating getting back into the pot game.
“It’s something I have been thinking about my entire adult life. It’s the direction I’ve always wanted to go in,” he said. “So yeah, it’s causing a pretty big smile on my face.”