Shanel Lindsay was a rising star in the state’s legal circles in 2009, as the Northeastern University School of Law graduate and former Superior Court law clerk litigated cases for a prestigious Boston law firm on behalf of Fortune 500 companies.
But one day that July — about eight months after Massachusetts voters decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana — Lindsay feared her career was finished after a Sharon police officer spotted medical marijuana in her car during a traffic stop.
She was arrested for pot possession and taken to the town’s police station for booking. She drew upon her legal training: The arrest was a violation of her civil rights, she told the arresting officer. The half-ounce of medical marijuana in her car was less than the legal limit. She argued successfully that she faced a civil fine, not an arrest, she said.
Lindsay said she believes the incident would have gone differently had she not been trained in the law.
“I was proud of what was happening in the legalization movement, but it didn’t occur to me that I would need to be involved in it, because it had been decriminalized,” she said. “But then I saw first-hand that [decriminalization] didn’t mean people had the protections that were supposed to be afforded.”
She was already concerned about issues of social justice, and that encounter with police would help shape the next years of her life as she became an advocate to legalize pot and, later, an adviser to state regulators and an entrepreneur in the state’s expanding marijuana industry.
Now Lindsay, 37, is founder and president of the Boston cannabis company Ardent and a member of the state’s Cannabis Advisory Board, which provides recommendations to Massachusetts marijuana regulators. Lindsay is engaged; she and her fiance each have a son.
And her change in career from law to marijuana entrepreneur and policy adviser gave Lindsay the chance to pursue equity in the pot industry, which by law is meant to encourage communities unfairly affected by the “war on drugs” to start businesses in the space.
“This industry is supposed to be about people having safe access to cannabis, while we remedy those past [and] continuing harms,” she said. “We have been criminalized, and continue to be.”
Originally from Dorchester, she studied anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. Afterward, she entered Northeastern’s law program. She intended to work in corporate law, but kept an eye to social justice, she said.
After medical marijuana was legalized in 2012, Lindsay took advantage of a laboratory to help her determine the proper way to prepare medical marijuana for use. She turned to it to deal with the pain from an ovarian cyst, and used her kitchen appliances to heat marijuana — in a process called decarboxylation — so the THC in the plant could be consumed.
But lab results showed her the do-it-yourself approach wasted 30 to 40 percent of the cannabis. She determined what was needed was a device that could properly heat marijuana long enough for the process to occur without wasting cannabis — and make it easier to measure more-accurate doses. The seed of her company’s first product, the NOVA Decarboxylator, was planted.
Lindsay faced difficulty rounding up investors — many were reluctant to put money into a company run by a woman of color.
Ultimately, she raised about $600,000, including $250,000 from Northbud Capital in exchange for a 7 percent equity stake. (Lindsay’s mother was her first investor, she said.)
Ardent, which manufactures the decarboxylator, was founded in 2015 and now has six full-time workers. The company sold 30,000 NOVA units and took in about $3 million in revenue last year, Lindsay said.
The company also offers educational materials and how-to videos on its website, plus it’s expanding its product line.
“We stay small; we stay lean. I’m really proud that I built a profitable company,” she said.
Rob Hunt, who was among Ardent’s earliest investors, said he was drawn to Lindsay’s company because of the product she wanted to sell and the reasons she started her company.
“When she explained her background and why she came into the cannabis industry, and what she had done to fill a niche that hadn’t been filled yet, the story resonated,” Hunt said.
Lindsay is unique among entrepreneurs because she is focused on both advocacy and running a business, he said.
“In all fairness, there have been times I’ve told Shanel to back off on the advocacy side, because it detracts sometimes to get her work done. But she refuses to listen on that one, and I applaud her for it,” Hunt said. “There have been times when she’s been absolutely right.”
But implementing an equitable Massachusetts marijuana industry has been difficult: As of mid-January, none of the first 99 licenses issued by the state Cannabis Control Commission were issued to minority-owned businesses.
Lindsay, who serves on the commission’s advisory panel, is calling on regulators to reserve the upcoming social consumption and delivery licenses for participants in the state’s equity and economic empowerment programs.
Cities and towns should do their part by implementing equity programs for applicants, she said. The state should also set up an enterprise fund to help start-up companies run by people of color get off the ground, she said.
She said she feels like a broken record at times, as she presses for equity in the marijuana industry. But she takes a long view of success.
“Even our roadblocks are paving the way for other people to make better equity programs,” she said. “I don’t see anything that we do here as a failure, because we are blazing new trails and important work isn’t easy work. But we need to hurry.”