Cannabis law offers redress for past prosecution

As Massachusetts moves to select players for a lucrative cannabis industry, it also is looking back, mindful of how people and communities suffered under former drug laws.

PITTSFIELD — As the state moves next week to select players for a lucrative cannabis industry, it also is looking back, mindful of how people and communities suffered under former drug laws.

Like the 24 people arrested in Pittsfield for marijuana possession in the waning days of prohibition, from 2006 to 2010.

Or the 20 people in North Adams during those five years, the 10 in Williamstown and the eight in Great Barrington.

Even as state officials await a tax windfall from cannabis sales, new rules attempt to make limited amends.

Starting Monday, the state Cannabis Control Commission will spend two weeks reviewing applications from two groups that, if certified, will be able to get a first crack at entering what's expected to debut as a $400 million-a-year business.

One group is existing medical marijuana dispensaries.

The other: People from communities and neighborhoods, mainly black and Latino, who endured disproportionately high rates of arrest and incarceration.

Regret about that found its way into "An Act To Ensure Safe Access to Marijuana," the state law that has directed work by the cannabis commission now in a final three-month sprint to the start of adult-use sales.

"Criminalization has had long-term ill effects, not only on the individuals arrested and incarcerated, but on their families and communities," says the commission's Summary of Equity Provisions.

People from both of Berkshire County's two cities, North Adams and Pittsfield, are eligible to apply for priority status, based on arrest rates, population, poverty and unemployment.

That policy is meant to bring cannabis industry jobs and revenues to places that, until a decade ago, were unduly penalized, before baby steps led to marijuana possession decriminalization in 2009 and legalization in 2016.

Jon B. Gettman, a criminal justice professor at Shenandoah University, advised the commission on eligible communities.

In a Dec. 8 report, Gettman found that North Adams ranked highest in Berkshire County for having the greatest impact on marijuana arrests. That city and Pittsfield made Gettman's list of the top 50 drug arrest impacts, with Pittsfield at No. 14 and North Adams in 31st place.

Gettman declined to speak about his two studies to date for the commission, citing ongoing work for the panel.

Before the advent of decriminalization, as many as 7,500 people were arrested for marijuana possession in Massachusetts each year.

The American Civil Liberties Union, in a 2013 report, said that from 2001 to 2010, police in the U.S. made 8 million marijuana arrests, 88 percent of them for possession. The report said that although marijuana use is equal between black people and white people, blacks were 3.73 times as likely to be arrested for possession.

"The price paid by those arrested and convicted of marijuana possession can be significant and linger for years, if not a lifetime," the report said.

Limited help

While applicants from the two Berkshire County cities will get early consideration, that's no promise of a license, according to Steven J. Hoffman, chairman of the cannabis commission.

"The objective is to ensure that those communities are full participants in the industry," he said. "We're not guaranteeing anybody's going to get a license. We're not going to relax our standards for these groups. We're just going to let them apply earlier."

Getting in ahead of potential competitors could prove valuable.

In the coming year or so, cannabis buyers in Massachusetts could hand over $400 million to licensed outlets. The state's tax bite on that purchasing could be as much as $85 million, one Department of Revenue estimate says.

On April 17, the commission will move on to considering actual applications.

People trying to secure licenses to operate a range of cannabis businesses, from retail to cultivation to research facilities to labs, also must win local approvals.

That includes a "host community" agreement. They must also hold an informational session in which residents hear directly from proponents of a cannabis startup.

Nathaniel Joyner, a community development specialist for the city of Pittsfield, said his office has been getting feelers.

"We have had a variety of interested parties exploring the local permitting process," Joyner said.

People have shown interest in different categories of cannabis businesses, he said. "None have progressed to the point where host agreements have been signed," Joyner said.

Key criteria

To be deemed eligible as "economic empowerment applicants," people have to demonstrate that three of the following six criteria apply to them:

- Most in the ownership group have lived in "areas of disproportionate impact" for five of the past 10 years.

- Most in that group have held jobs devoted to serving affected communities, or whose work duties included providing resources or helping educate people in those communities about the economy.

- At least 51 percent of employees and subcontractors live in the affected communities, a percentage that must rise to 75 by the day a proposed cannabis business opens.

- At least 51 percent of employees and subcontractors have a drug-related offense but are otherwise legally employable in a cannabis business.

That does not include arrests for trafficking, which render people ineligible. "We had a pretty intense conversation on that," Hoffman said.

- Most in the ownership group are of "Black, African American, Hispanic or Latino descent," according to the commission.

The sixth criterion, Hoffman acknowledges, can seem a little "mushy."

It reads, "Owners can demonstrate significant past experience in or business practices that promote economic empowerment in areas of disproportionate impact."

Though applicants need only meet three of the criteria, Hoffman said his panel recommends that they reach for all six.

"In case we're not 100 percent sure," he said. "We're anxious to include these applications, because it's an important part of the law."

As those criteria show, applicants need not be poor themselves or have past drug possession convictions, if they are in a position to bring economic benefits to affected communities.

The state's effort to redress past harm to communities by marijuana prosecutions doesn't stop at the application stage.

Through a "social equity program," people who qualify can get coaching later on management, accounting, marketing and a range of skills needed to make a business succeed.

In all, 29 cities were listed as having faced a disproportionate impact from old drug policies. Other cities in the four western counties include Amherst, Greenfield, Holyoke, Monson, certain neighborhoods of Springfield and West Springfield.

Larry Parnass can be reached at, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.