The cannabis scene in Worcester, Massachusetts, is thriving. New Dia, the first equity-powered dispensary in the city, situated about 50 miles west of Boston, opened a few weeks ago. The business carries items from Freshly Baked, a veteran-, minority-, and women-run operation from nearby Taunton, and owner Ross Bradshaw donated the first $5,000 in sales to a neighborhood organization. The Botanist, a company with two area retail locations, offers educational seminars for equity partners looking to break into the industry.
All of which makes Thomas Laverty’s case so jarring.
Laverty & Son started as plumbers, pivoted to cannabis farming, ended in federal prison.
In 2017, the 37-year-old plumber was arrested for growing marijuana in a building belonging to the family business in Millbury, a town on Worcester’s southern border.
Last year a jury in federal court in Worcester convicted Laverty, now 41, of cultivating an illegal marijuana grow of 100 or more plants.
That’s where the story takes a Kafkaesque turn: On March 2, 2021, a federal judge sentenced Laverty to 12 years in prison. That’s six times longer than the sentence handed down to a convicted fentanyl dealer in the same month, in the same federal courthouse.
Laverty, a nonviolent offender, heads off to federal prison in a state where no one would blink at the grow if the family had first obtained a license for a medical or adult-use dispensary.
Father, plumber, grower, prisoner
Cannabis billboards outside the courtroom
James Gribouski, Laverty’s defense attorney, points out that the billboards plastered everywhere in Worcester for legal cannabis offer a jarring reminder of how discordant federal laws are today, with their draconian 1980s and 1990s mandatory-minimum prison sentences. “The dichotomy is almost surreal,” Gribouski says.
Massachusetts voters fully legalized marijuana in 2016. The state’s cannabis sales last year nearly topped $700 million. So why is Thomas Laverty serving 12 years in federal prison?
Plumbers who weren’t plumbing
There’s no simple answer. A combination of factors led to Laverty’s outrageous sentence, including his previous convictions, an additional act of low-level fraud, mandatory-minimum drug sentencing laws, and a big dose of wrong-place-wrong-time.
As in many trials, the two versions of Thomas Laverty presented in court sounded vastly different.
Assistant U.S. Attorney William F. Abely II described him as a mastermind of a massive illegal grow operation fronted by the family plumbing business, Chuck Laverty & Son.
Charles Laverty, the “Chuck” in the brand name, ran the company with Thomas, his son. The company operated out of two facilities, one in Millbury and another in nearby Clinton.
On Oct. 17, 2017, a team of federal agents raided the plumbing company’s Clinton location, a garage-size facility attached to a single-family residence. Federal officials described finding a “large, sophisticated marijuana-growing operation” inside.
The DEA’s arrest warrant asserted that when agents raided the family’s rented Clinton warehouse, the operation “included more than 1,000 marijuana plants as well as significant infrastructure including lighting, cooling, and watering equipment.”
The government said Thomas Laverty, his father Chuck, and his mother Andrea were involved. All were charged with federal drug crimes.
Chuck Laverty was convicted in 2020 but died of cancer, at age 60, before sentencing took place. Andrea Laverty, 64, was convicted and sentenced to one year of home confinement.
If Laverty’s mother received home confinement, what set off her son’s 12-year sentence? It was his prior convictions—and possibly the welfare fraud.
Cannabis ‘not a priority’ for U.S. Attorney
The 93 presidential-appointed U.S. Attorneys act as federal district attorneys for their jurisdictions. Each sets priorities and policies for their office. The federal government’s resources are prodigious but they aren’t limitless. U.S. Attorneys ultimately sign off on every case within their district.
U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling promised to focus on opioid crimes, but refused to rule out cannabis prosecutions.
During the years of the Laverty case, roughly 2017 through early 2021, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts was Andrew Lelling, a longtime Justice Department prosecutor who was elevated to the top job by President Trump.
When Lelling took over, he made it clear that opioid crime, not marijuana, was his top drug-prosecution priority. “The number one enforcement priority for my office is the opioid crisis,” Lelling told reporters in early 2018. “Twenty-one hundred people in Massachusetts were killed by opioid overdoses last year, not marijuana overdoses, so that is where my resources are going right now.”
But not turning a blind eye
At the same time, Lelling did not rule out cannabis prosecutions—despite the state’s new legalization scheme. His office could not “provide assurances that certain categories of participants in the state-level marijuana trade will be immune from federal prosecution,” he said.
Ever since Colorado and Washington first legalized cannabis for adult use in 2012, US Attorneys have largely limited prosecutions to those who stray outside the established state-law lines. Thomas Laverty and his parents certainly did that, conducting a commercial-scale grow operation without bothering to apply for a state license.
But there was something else that may have prompted Lelling and his staff to target Laverty.
An extra dose of fraud
While Laverty & Son were growing cannabis in the Clinton facility, Thomas Laverty was fraudulently drawing welfare benefits. According to the federal announcement of Laverty’s plea, the younger plumber lied to Massachusetts state officials about his household income and resources. “For example, in October 2016, Laverty represented that no one in his household was working, and in April 2017 he certified that there were no changes to his household income,” reads the March 20, 2020, media release. “During this time, Laverty was receiving income from the family marijuana business.”
That extra bit of law-flouting may have been what set the U.S. Attorney’s teeth on edge.
Laverty: ‘Ready to serve my time’
William Abely, the prosecutor at trial, made much of the fact that Laverty collected public assistance while running the grow, according to the Worcester Telegram & Gazette. Last year, Laverty pleaded guilty to a charge related to the food stamps and was ordered to pay back $3,100. He apologized during sentencing. “I know my actions were wrong,” he said, “and I’m ready to serve my time and move on.”
How much time is too much?
He’ll be serving more time—for growing cannabis in a legal state—than many violent offenders. Because Laverty had two prior drug convictions on his record, federal sentencing guidelines recommended 30 years to life. That penalty was so excessive that Abely asked for half that amount.
Because federal marijuana law remains locked in the 1990s, James Gribouski, Laverty’s defense attorney, was left with no choice but to request the minimum mandatory sentence of ten years for his client.
The judge ended up giving Laverty 12 years behind bars.
U.S. Attorney has moved to private sector
Neither Abely and Andrew Lelling chose to comment on Laverty’s extraordinary sentence. Lelling stepped down at U.S. Attorney in Feb. 2021, as is common during the transition from one presidential administration to the next. He now works in the white collar defense practice of Jones Day, one of the world’s largest law firms.
Family on the outside looking in
Hailey Laverty is Thomas Laverty’s daughter. She’s 19 years old.
She doesn’t deny the family was in the cannabis business. But she paints a different picture of her father. The family intended to open a licensed medical marijuana dispensary, she tells Leafly, but they got too far ahead of the application process.
“Every single one of them had medical cards and they were in the process of trying to apply for a dispensary license,” she recalls. “Because that was the ultimate goal. So it wasn’t that they were growing this abundance of weed to go sell to children on the street.”
Focused on the family, not the law
Thomas Laverty never physically harmed anyone, Hailey says. He sent both of his children to private schools and provided jobs for more than 10 families. “He’s always put his kids before everyone else,” she says. “He knows that he hasn’t always been on the best path, but he wanted us to be able to grow up with every opportunity that he wishes he got to have.”
In a letter to Judge Timothy S. Hillman, who presided over the trial, she wrote that her father “truly cares about everyone around him, and in most circumstances that means putting everyone else’s needs ahead of his own.”
Cannabis sentence: Six times more than fentanyl?
The nuances of Thomas Laverty’s character and case aside, many advocates are raising questions about whether the punishment fits Laverty’s nonviolent cannabis crime.
Laverty will serve six times as long as a Massachusetts fentanyl dealer sentenced in the same courthouse.
Laverty’s sentence is almost three years longer than that of a man convicted by a jury on child pornography charges in a federal court in nearby Boston, whose sentencing took place less than a month before Laverty’s. Earlier this year a prior-convicted felon (for assault with intent to murder, assault with a deadly weapon, and drug distribution) was sent to prison from the same federal courthouse for distribution of cocaine and fentanyl, as well as illegal gun possession. He’ll serve three years less than Thomas Laverty. Laverty’s 12-year term is only four years less than that of a convicted murderer who was sentenced a week before the plumber came before the court. Two weeks ago a man convicted of distributing fentanyl, a drug implicated in the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans, received a sentence in Massachusetts federal court of a little more than two years in prison.
Congress must act to change sentencing laws
Cases like Laverty’s are the reason why advocacy groups are pushing hard for change. “Egregious sentences like Thomas Laverty’s display the imperative need for sentencing reform for marijuana offenses in America,” says Mary Bailey, managing director of the Last Prisoner Project.
Change may be coming in Congress. In Dec. 2020, while Laverty awaited sentencing, the US House of Representatives approved a landmark bill to abolish federal penalties for marijuana and wipe clean cannabis-related criminal records. (The bill failed in the Senate.) Last Prisoner Project notes on its website that in September 2019, then-candidate Joe Biden said: “Nobody should be in jail for a nonviolent crime.”
Biden also bears responsibility
“Hopefully the current administration will remedy this travesty of federal marijuana laws,” says Gribouski, Laverty’s attorney.
In the meantime, advocates are working to help nonviolent cannabis offenders sitting in prison. Last Prisoner Project recently launched A Time to Heal, a campaign designed to reintroduce mass clemency. The idea has historical precedent, most recently with President Ford, who created a civilian panel to identify people who were needlessly imprisoned, says Natalie Papillion, LPP’s director of strategic initiatives.
Presidential clemency is an option
The idea is to create a framework for Biden to grant clemency to several thousand men and women serving time for cannabis convictions, rather than waiting until his final hours in office, as has become the norm. The president has a chance to undo some of the damage done by laws passed while he was in the Senate—“and one of the most visceral harms is that there are thousands of people sitting in jail cells at the same time that other people are making millions of dollars” in the cannabis business, Papillion says.
Family members bear the burden
Hailey Laverty was eight years old when her mom died, and she didn’t have much of a relationship with her dad until she started high school. When she was a sophomore, she was summoned from boarding school to be interviewed by agents from the DEA and FBI in her freshly ransacked home. “It was not my favorite day,” she says. She was 15 years old.
She’s now a freshman at the University of Alabama, where she’s studying business and criminal justice. She hopes to find a job in the legal system that will help bring about systemic reform. She worked with Gribouski, helping do research for her father’s defense, and has set her sights on someday becoming a federal judge.
She already has one supporter. Judge Hillman called her letter on her father’s behalf “exceptional,” according to the Worcester newspaper, and said, “If she ever wants a clerkship or an internship, she’s got a place here.”
Hailey refuses to fault Hillman for the sentence. “There wasn’t a lot of leeway with what he could give my dad,” she says. “So I think that the criminal justice system in general is very flawed… I feel like drugs should not have a minimum mandatory sentence, no matter what the drug is, unless it was a violent crime.”
Maybe in her adult life she’ll be able to help others. But for her father, it may be too late. Federal sentences don’t generally get shortened—so unless someone intervenes, Hailey, who spent much of her childhood being raised by one parent, will enter adult life without ready access to any.