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People With Past Convictions Shouldn’t Be Blocked From Marijuana Industry Work, Massachusetts Regulators Say (Op-Ed)



“We are proud to end unnecessary industry prohibitions on those who have the legacy skills and expertise to thrive in Massachusetts’s regulated industry—and deserve the economic benefits now that marijuana is legal.”

By Nurys Camargo and Ava Callender Concepcion, Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission via CommonWealth Beacon

This fall, the Cannabis Control Commission’s regulations to implement Massachusetts’s equity reform law became official, representing the most wide-ranging changes to the Commonwealth’s regulated marijuana marketplace in six years and a historic accomplishment for advocates, operators, regulators and the legislature. As a result, our agency is now entrusted with oversight of local contracts between host communities and licensees, as well as efforts at the municipal level to increase inclusivity in the industry. However, a single legislative update may provide the greatest opportunity for individuals directly impacted by the war on drugs.

The marijuana employment amendment—passed unanimously by the state Senate before being adopted in the House and then signed into law by Gov. Charlie Baker (R) in August 2022—now bans all prior criminal convictions, including marijuana offense-related dispositions, from automatically disqualifying individuals from working for most cannabis licensees unless the offense involved distribution of a controlled substance to a minor. In doing so, the Commonwealth has cleared the way for gainful employment in the legal industry by the communities most impacted by drug policies that disproportionately incarcerated people of color, and eliminated a blanket regulatory ban that previously prevented employers from even considering their hire.

Legalization brought a sense of hope, belonging and inspiration for those most impacted by marijuana prohibition; many believed it would address historical injustices, make products safer and bring economic gains to those harmed by previous policies. Fortunately, much of that vision has come to fruition.

Today, Massachusetts’s adult-use cannabis industry has generated more than $5 billion in sales, or roughly $1 billion in tax revenue, and millions more in non-tax revenue through licensing and application fees. More than 570 licensed marijuana establishments have commenced operations, 102 medical marijuana treatment centers are open and nearly 100,000 residents are now registered medical patients. Hundreds of entrepreneurs, and more than 20,0000 employees, benefit from growing, manufacturing and selling the biggest cash crop in our state.

However, over that time, only 67 participants in the commission’s programming to include communities harmed by the war on drugs have opened businesses (158 more are in the licensing pipeline), while less than 15 percent of the current workforce identifies as Black or Latino.

Despite our best efforts, equity is coming slowly. The high cost of compliance, combined with limited access to capital, have kept barriers to entry high. The state’s new cannabis equity law has mandated solutions to many of these problems, including the creation of the Cannabis Social Equity Trust Fund administered by the Executive Office of Economic Development.

But to truly eliminate all collateral consequences of the drug war, it was also important to remove unnecessary blanket prohibitions that prevented people with criminal records from obtaining jobs like the ones they did before legalization. Employment has proven to be one of the most effective tools for reintegration and reducing recidivism.

Expanding cannabis job opportunities for individuals with criminal records benefits existing operators, which are required to hire diverse employees and to help harmed communities. Successfully transitioning individuals from the legacy market to the legal market also reduces the public’s reliance on unregulated channels.

With the marijuana employment amendment in place, Massachusetts residents should still expect licensed establishments to remain safe as the result of ongoing parameters at the state and federal level. For example, all agents and licensees are subject to the commission’s suitability review, and every employer has an affirmative duty to protect employees, customers and anyone else that encounters the business from risks of harm.

According to the Massachusetts attorney general’s office, employers that automatically reject all applicants with criminal records may be violating state and federal civil rights laws because using criminal records in this way can have a disproportionate impact on protected groups, including racial minority groups. Additionally, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission prohibits employers from instituting absolute restrictions against anyone with a criminal record.

To avoid potential liability for civil rights violations, employers should conduct an individualized assessment before determining that a particular criminal record disqualifies an applicant for a particular job.

Bearing in mind that most drug-related convictions can no longer be construed as automatic disqualifications for work at most legal marijuana establishments, cannabis businesses still maintain discretion and the right to hire who they choose. In other words, employers may refuse to hire any agent based on specifics of that criminal record, such as violent offenses, that may present public safety issues for employees or the public.

In those cases, job applicants must be notified first and receive a copy of their CORI or criminal history information along with information about how to correct an inaccurate record.

As the commission continues to review policies to ensure voters’ equity vision is realized, it is imperative that we strike the important balance between social justice and public safety. We are proud to end unnecessary industry prohibitions on those who have the legacy skills and expertise to thrive in Massachusetts’s regulated industry—and deserve the economic benefits now that marijuana is legal.

Nurys Camargo is the social justice appointee to the Commonwealth’s Cannabis Control Commission, appointed by the state treasurer, attorney general and governor. Ava Callender Concepcion serves in the public safety seat, appointed by the attorney general, and was recently named acting chair by her peers.

This article first appeared on CommonWealth Beacon and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.

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