Since the first dispensaries in Massachusetts opened their doors in 2018, going to one has become sort of like walking into an Apple store: a wide array of products tucked away in glass cases, and expert salespeople to tell you all about them.

But where do people who once participated in the illicit market — and in some cases served time for it — fit into the state's multibillion dollar legal cannabis industry?

Boey Bertold found a place in the legalized industry, but not without overcoming some hurdles.

“I'm a former trafficker. I'm a second-generation cannabis entrepreneur. I guess you would say it's been a part of my family,” Bertold said. “I was arrested in 2006 with about 300 pounds of cannabis. It led to a big bust, a big arrest, and a subsequent 2.5- to 3-year state prison sentence.”

A man in a greenhouse holding a tray of cannabis plant seedlings.
Boey Bertold

Bertold now runs Paper Crane Cannabis with his partner, Lisa Mauriello. It's an outdoor cultivation farm in Hubbardston with a social equity license. There, he employs people who have a similar background as himself. They're part of what's called the legacy market: People who were in the industry before legalization.

“The words 'social equity' to us mean legacy,” Bertold said. “If you are social equity, chances are you are a legacy operator, and the legacy operators are responsible for the marijuana culture in our society today.”

He says many of those people have been shut out of the legal market because they don't have the capital to compete with larger companies. That's something Harry Jean-Jacques can relate to.

“I was there from the beginning, you know, I've sold weed my whole life,” Jean-Jacques said. "After legalization, I was very, very excited but quickly let down. And that's what actually got me into the fight for equity."

He runs the nonprofit Big Hope Project, which provides free sealing and expungement services and educational events in areas disproportionately harmed by the war on drugs. It's a tenet of the state's legalization law that's falling short, as people in that category navigate a complicated and costly licensing system.

“They talk the big game. But then very, very shortly after, when you saw how they stipulated, like, you had to have like $1,000,000 in your account; you had to have all these things that people I know, up until that point, they didn't have, and were flourishing selling weed,” Jean-Jacques said. “In my opinion, they artificially made it difficult for melanated people to get fully involved in this market.”

The state's new cannabis equity law is an effort to correct that. Among other things, it establishes a trust fund for social equity applicants and limits the fees cities and towns can charge for hosting a cannabis business.

A group of people smiling at the camera.
Harry Jean-Jacques poses with a people with whom he worked together to pass a cannabis equity ordinance.

As the industry evolves, Jean-Jacques points to places like Cambridge as a good model for leveling the playing field. So far there, cannabis licenses are exclusively available to certified social equity and economic empowerment applicants. Just this week, the City Council voted to extend that provision for another two years. In general, Harry thinks the process should be easier, especially for legacy market participants.

“I think it is really asinine,” Jean-Jacques said. “This thing has been going on for decades and all of a sudden a bunch of white bankers and do-gooders are saying you have to do this, that and that.”

Albie Montgomery is among those trying to make the industry more accessible to others. He was arrested for cannabis possession in the 1990s. These days, he's working to open a dispensary in South Station early next year with social equity partners owning nearly 50% of the business. He admits the licensing process is challenging, but he's trying to help others through it by hosting monthly programs on clearing their criminal records of offenses that have been decriminalized, like marijuana possession or trafficking. Parts of the state's new cannabis equity law aim to make that easier too. Montgomery also encourages those who want to go legit to take a social equity class.

Everybody's like, this is what I'm great at: I'm a great cultivator or I'm a great sales person,” Montgomery said. “But as far as the rules and regulations, you want to know them. And you want to know what you're getting into.”

And with that knowledge, he says, comes power. But for Montgomery, it also boils down to something pretty simple.

“I feel like no one should be able to sell cannabis until everyone who's been incarcerated for selling cannabis released,” Montgomery said. “First and foremost, period.”