Greater Boston's First Recreational Pot Shop A Bad Idea?

Opinion Editorial by Brit Smith, host of Blunt Talk

This weekend, Greater Boston gets its first Recreational Cannabis store. But until the city gets more than one Rec shop open, this is likely to be the start of a crowded and disruptive era for anyone in the general vicinity of the old Brookline Bank.

New England Treatment Access, also known as NETA, has been operating as a medical marijuana dispensary since November 2016. But as of Saturday March 23rd at 9 am, NETA will also start selling cannabis to anyone over the age of 21.

The store has proven to be in full compliance with the Cannabis Control Commissions’ requirements for parking plans, product testing standards, and public safety measures. But even NETA admits it is in a densely populated physical location where parking is tight, and among several other concerns is this; it’s going to be the only pot shop within trekking distance for about a dozen universities full of students with nowhere legal to consume.

Concern #1: Parking And Traffic

NETA is located on the often-chaotic corner of Route 9 and Washington Street. Yes, the same Route 9 that feeds thousands of commuters in and out of Boston from the west side of town each day. And yes, the same Washington Street that leads to the walkable area of Brookline Village.

Before it was given a final license to sell to adults, NETA had to show the Commission that it would be ready for the crowds. It did just that. There are at least five parking locations, including garages and metered street parking, mapped out for customers online. There’s MBTA stops nearby for days. And the store is paying for an additional fifteen officers to run police detail outside until the crowds subside. But most of the available parking, is in Brookline Village.

That means potentially slow moving traffic on that bustling corner, as drivers hunt for those coveted parking spots. And for medical patients, this could be a significant problem. The parking lot attached to NETA’s building where patients can usually park or be dropped off will be closed to make room for the queue of recreational customers.

Many patients have mobility issues, and right now, their options are to take public transport or to join the packs seeking out parking spots and then make their way over to buy their medicine.

Another potential hurdle- the town may not be ready for just how large the crowds are going to get outside. The dispensary is walkable for thousands of young adults; from the condos near the Jamaica Plain VA to the dorms at Emmanuel College. And the forecast for the weekend is cloudy but dry. So Saturday’s foot traffic is going to be out in full force.

Brookline Police have ballparked the number of expected customers at around a thousand people. I’m calling it now; that’s a vast underestimation. NETA in Northampton was one of the first two Rec shops to open last Fall, it’s nowhere near a major metro city and definitely nowhere near dozens of universities, and it had around two-thousand customers on day one.

Cultivate had similar numbers, and residents complained within three days that the Leicester dispensary needed to rethink its parking and traffic plan. I’d expect NETA Brookline will have similar feedback from local residents and commuters alike.

 

Concern #2: Social Equity Be Damned.

While NETA was founded locally, it is now safe to say it is the epitome of Big Business coming into Massachusetts first. About two months ago, right before it was awarded the state’s 12th final licence to sell recreational pot, NETA was bought up by Atlanta-based cannabis company Surterra Wellness.

The purchase of NETA was actually one of the largest acquisitions in the country’s cannabis industry to date. Surterra Wellness owns cannabis operations across Nevada, Florida, and even Texas, including 70 retail locations. Meanwhile, trying to get their foot in the door of the nation’s newest industry, are the people who were hit hardest by the prohibition of the plant.

The Cannabis Control Commission and local lawmakers have been pushing to get a headstart for Boston’s communities of color, who were impacted at a disproportionate rate by the War on Drugs. But so far, those applicants are few and far between in the state’s recreational weed game.

The Commission is even working on a program to help Economic Empowerment Applicants find funding, because accessing capital is often one of the biggest barriers to entry, especially for people who don’t come from communities that have much generational wealth. Since Greater Boston’s first cannabis store is owned by a major out-of-state company with deep pockets, it hardly seems like a helping hand for those trying to make their way as a new business.

It’s true that NETA is doing its part for the community- it has a diversity program that selects interns from Roxbury Community College. But big companies like Surterra Wellness can expand quickly, manufacture en masse, afford to open more locations, make strong brand names for themselves, innovate and offer new products…. All of which may please the consumer and the salesperson, but it also locks out the local entrepreneur.

First Recreational Pot Shop In Greater Boston Opens Saturday
First Recreational Pot Shop In Greater Boston Opens Saturday
The first 21+ recreational cannabis dispensary in Greater Boston opened up shop to the public Saturday.

Concern #3: Supply, Demand, And Where Can I Smoke?

In case I haven’t mentioned it yet, NETA will be the ONLY adult use pot shop inside the 128. After opening day, Cultivate Dispensary quickly enacted a ½ ounce purchasing limit for its recreational customers, to deal with their almost instant supply-side issue. NETA’s Northampton location only allowed sales on an eighth at a time. ATG Dispensary in Salem has, in fact, stopped all sales of cannabis due to inventory issues.

And concerns over shortages were so prevalent ahead of recreational legalization that the Cannabis Control Commission made a rule ensuring all co-located medical/recreational shops put aside 35% of its supply for medical only sales. Going off the track record so far, I’d expect NETA Brookline to see recreational supply issues within the first few months. Secondary to the problem of not having any pot to purchase is having purchased your pot and not having anywhere to legally consume it.

All those college kids, who are now walking distance to a weed store and will likely buy a lot of it, have nowhere legal to smoke. By law, cannabis can only be consumed on privately owned property. So dorm rooms don’t count. Neither do most rented apartments. So what is a stressed-out student to do? Until social consumption spaces are licensed and opened up, I’d expect to see your fair share of social smokers popping up in the city’s public places.

Social consumption is something the Commission is currently tackling, and big businesses are getting pushback from local activists. So things are being done on those fronts. But as for the parking and traffic issues, that pressure valve can and will only be released by the opening of more stores throughout Greater Boston.

I’d like to see a batch of three or more retail locations get licensed at once to help take the weight off single spots like NETA, but of course, that’s probably unrealistic. The legalization of an entirely new industry like cannabis is very much a marathon, not a sprint. Right now, there are only eleven recreational marijuana stores up and running in the Bay State, most of which are near small rural communities and towns.

But by the end of 2019, the map will look a lot different from how it does today. It won’t be too long before the Commission OK’s another rec pot shop for the city, and then another… and another… until a cannabis store opening is no more controversial or disruptive than a liquor store would be. Sure, the first marijuana retailer to open near Boston will have its growing pains, but like all uncomfortable eras of progression and growth, this too shall pass.

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