Pubdate: Fri, 21 Jul 2017
Source: Boston Globe (MA)
Copyright: 2017 Globe Newspaper Company
Author: Claire Parker


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."

'We have really carried the burden of prohibition for so long.'

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

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

"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."
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