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Andrea Cabral envisions prison-to-pot-jobs pipeline

Secretary of Public Safety Andrea Cabral answers questions after giving testimony in June 2014.
Secretary of Public Safety Andrea Cabral answers questions after giving testimony in June 2014.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/Globe Staff
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’s now the head of a recreational pot company.

With Cabral as its chief executive, startup Ascend Cannabis plans to open a retail shop in Boston and growing facility in Athol.

And far from being an incongruous turn in her career, Cabral sees this new work 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 facilities.


“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.”

First, though, Cabral’s firm, Ascend Cannabis, must get local approval and state marijuana licenses for a growing facility in Athol and retail shop in Boston near North Station. Ascend, the brainchild of big-time Boston investor and former Baupost Group managing director Abner Kurtin, is scouting for additional retail locations.

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

But Cabral’s long-term vision is much more expansive. She hopes to use her political and law enforcement connections to build a larger jobs program between the marijuana industry and the state’s courts and probation systems.

Cannabis companies can provide ex-offenders with steady, good-paying gigs, which in turn should reduce the likelihood they’ll end up back in jail. Ultimately, Cabral believes, the program could keep families together and help stabilize communities that have high rates of arrests for drugs and other crimes.


“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 downright enthusiastic about the partnership. He hopes it will reduce his facilities’ recidivism rate from the current level of 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. “If someone who hasn’t had good opportunities in life can catch on and make a decent living? It’s awesome. There’s no squeamishness on my part at all. Marijuana is legal and that’s the law — whether I like it or not is irrelevant. 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.’ “

In addition to the hiring program, Cabral said Ascend will also fund grants to nonprofits that work with children whose parents have been incarcerated. And legalities permitting, Cabral also hopes to underwrite loans to small pot companies run by entrepreneurs from low-income and minority communities.

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


“I was coming from perspective where marijuana had always been illegal,” she said. “A fish doesn’t know it’s in water. You don’t even question it. 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.”

She added that tough-on-drugs policies might play well politically, “but in terms of what kind of society they make you evolve into — that’s a much deeper, bigger question that requires less politics and more critical thinking about the actual results.”

Cabral’s change of heart on marijuana didn’t happen in one dramatic moment. Instead, her views slowly evolved as she listened to the arguments about its harm relative to other drugs and to alcohol, whose damage she witnessed as a prosecutor and domestic violence advocate.

Then, last year, she served on the state’s Cannabis Advisory Board and became convinced the high 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. My willingness as a law enforcement professional to be part of the industry comes from the fact that it’s being so carefully regulated.”

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