After felony convictions, Elgin man now has chance to become a marijuana craft grower
Felony drug convictions nearly 23 years ago turned life upside down for Peter Maccaro, who said he spent years rebuilding professionally and financially.
Now, the 58-year-old Elgin man hopes to start a new chapter by taking advantage of marijuana's legalization, particularly its social equity program that gives people with marijuana-related criminal records a leg up into the new business.
Maccaro, who until last year worked as a corporate trainer for Aramark Corp. and now is a hemp grower, hopes to be awarded one of 40 state licenses for marijuana craft growers available by July 1. Under social equity, he can get extra points on his application and pay reduced application and license fees.
"I didn't ever think that being arrested on charges of marijuana would be a plus," Maccaro said.
Maccaro said he moved to Elgin from Colorado in his late 20s to be with his mother, who had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and started growing marijuana at home because his mother's oncologist said it could help with nausea.
"I read every single book I could find on it. I took botany classes at Elgin Community College," he said.
He was arrested in May 1996, not long after his mother died, when his girlfriend, with whom he'd broken up, called police to report he was growing marijuana, he said. "She got back at me. ... It was horrible," he said.
Maccaro was arrested after he was accused of growing more than 50 cannabis plants at his residence and was charged with felony possession with intent to deliver of up to 5,000 grams of cannabis and felony possession of LSD, Kane County court records show.
He was arrested again in September 1996 and charged with felony cannabis possession and possession of drug paraphernalia.
Maccaro pleaded guilty to both Kane County charges in early 1997 and was sentenced to 6½ years in prison on the May 1996 case and a year in prison on the September 1996 case, records show.
He was accepted into the "impact incarceration program," or boot camp, in February 1997. Maccaro said he completed the program -- "120 days, they make you sing that every day" -- and was released on probation.
"A lot of people would look at it and say, 'Marijuana caused you a lot of problems.' But I guess my look at it is that marijuana laws caused me a lot of problems," Maccaro said. "Would I do it again? Absolutely. The main focus when I started growing marijuana was to get a quality product to give to my mother to help with her cancer."
Finding a job
At the time of his arrest, Maccaro was co-owner of Trio restaurant in Evanston, where he worked as a chef and other roles as needed, he said.
Once released, his probation officer told him he needed to find a job locally, so he got a job in construction in Elgin. He eventually sold his stake in the partnership, he said.
"I had a hard time finding a decent job," Maccaro said. "I felt like even after I paid my debt to society, I still had to keep paying and paying because of this thing I was fighting with my background."
After about a decade in construction, Maccaro said, he finally got a job as research and development chef with Whole Foods Market, which did background checks going back only seven years. "When I found that out I said, 'I'm good. I'm golden,'" he said.
He was hired in 2013 by Aramark Corp., whose background checks also didn't go as far back as his conviction. "Twenty years later I finally got back to where I was before all the problems -- making decent money with a decent job and a decent schedule," he said.
Maccaro said he worked for Aramark as executive chef, food services director and corporate trainer. An Aramark representative confirmed his employment there.
Maccaro said he decided to leave his corporate job last year to follow his longtime passion and work as a grower for Old Barn Hemp in Huntley, where he was hired June 1.
"I decided to jump off and take the chance to not only go back and do what I love, but also knowing legalization was coming," he said.
So far only the existing 21 medical marijuana cultivation centers across the state have been approved to grow recreational marijuana. The Illinois Department of Agriculture will accept applications for craft growers -- intended to be smaller businesses -- Feb. 14 through March 16, and will award up to 40 licenses by July 1.
Under marijuana legalization, Maccaro's lesser felony conviction qualifies for expungement and allows him to participate in the social equity program.
Social equity applicants are eligible for 200 points on the application, out of a possible total 1,000 points; a $2,500 application fee, instead of $5,000; and receiving technical assistance, grants and low-interest loans. The license fee is $20,000 for social equity applicants and double that for everyone else.
Maccaro also plans to apply for a marijuana transportation license, again by leveraging social equity for extra points and reduced fees.
As for Maccaro's more serious felony conviction, it is not an automatic disqualifier for getting a craft grower license. Applicants are required to disclose their criminal record and go through a background check, Department of Agriculture spokesman Joe Kienzler said.
When assessing criminal records, the department will consider factors including the age of the applicant at the time of the crime and how many years have passed, as well as evidence of "present fitness and professional character," according to published rules.
Maccaro, who is partnering with longtime friend Jeff Schroeder of Elgin for the craft growing business, said he expects intense competition for licenses and hopes that his good conduct for nearly a quarter-century will play in his favor.
Attorney David Standa of the Chicago firm Locke Lord, with whom Maccaro and Schroeder consulted in October, said the scoring of applications is designed to be based on factual components. Those include the suitability of the proposed facility and employee training plan, plus plans for safety, cultivation, record-keeping and more.
"When it comes to reviewing someone's record, I am not sure how much the human factor will have an effect," said Standa, whose firm has a cannabis-related blog. "It's still going to be, 'Hey, let's look at the application as a whole and how many points are they eligible for. ... Are they in the top 40 applicants and if so, do they get a license?"
Maccaro and Schroeder said they have been looking for a space in Elgin for their business venture. They figured they need about 25,000 square feet, including 5,000 square feet of growing area, to start.
The license application requires, at a minimum, a lease or purchase option for a facility where local zoning allows marijuana growing, attorney Standa said. So far the partners haven't found a suitable space but are confident they'll find one, Maccaro said.
"We talked to a number of people who have had buildings open here in Elgin for years, and we were not able to convince them to give us a shot," he said. "There is still a lot of stigma."
Maccaro earned a horticulture seminar certification last fall from Oaksterdam University, which calls itself "America's first cannabis college." He said he has friends in the marijuana business in Colorado and has spent time there learning how to breed new strains.
Some key things he learned: Maintain a correct pH level, feed plants properly and inoculate roots with a beneficial bacteria tea. "It's a weed; it's not rocket surgery," he said.
Maccaro said he got his medical marijuana card last summer -- he qualifies because of a hepatitis C diagnosis -- which allowed him to start growing marijuana at home and check out local dispensaries for research. For example, he found out that dispensaries typically offer more than a dozen indica strains of cannabis but only one or two of sativa strains.
"As I researched, I found out sativa is the most popular, but the problem is they take longer to grow, they don't yield as much and it's more expensive to produce," he said. "We are going to be the sativa guys. We are going to concentrate on that spectrum of the business."
Schroeder said the idea of partnering with Maccaro came from a mutual friend who manages a medical marijuana dispensary in Rolling Meadows. "He's known Pete and I for 20-plus years and he was saying, 'This would be perfect for you guys.'"
Maccaro is the "poster boy" for marijuana social equity, Schroeder said.
"He was impacted by the illegality of it, and the law now, and the Pritzker administration, is doing lots of stuff to make amends. And the fact that he's also an expert at what we are trying to do ... he's got it all."
Kim Gilmore, who heads Gilmore Marketing Concepts in Elgin, is working on the marketing and business plan for the craft growing venture, which required research based in states that previously legalized marijuana, she said.
"There's only so many of these golden tickets," Gilmore said. "We're just crossing our fingers that he's the perfect candidate."
• Daily Herald staff writer Harry Hitzeman contributed to this report.