No Reefer Madness in JP, Mostly Just Parking Concerns

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Earlier this week, a recreational marijuana company, Core Empowerment, gained approval by Boston’s Zoning Board of Appeals, bringing it one step closer to opening in Jamaica Plain.

The next step is for Core Empowerment to appear in front of the state’s Cannabis Control Commission (CCC) to get a license to open. Co-owner Tomas Gonzalez said no date has been set for a CCC meeting.

Core has also signed a lease to go into a long-vacant basement level commercial space in Hyde Square.

And for the most part there hasn’t been much reefer madness about a recreational marijuana company opening in Jamaica Plain. That’s not surprising considering the neighborhood, and that 62 percent of Boston residents supported legalization in 2016.

The main topic that residents have shown concern about, and Core Empowerment has tried to address, is parking.

I’ll get this out of the way. While I haven’t smoked marijuana in years, and don’t plan on smoking marijuana, I voted in favor of legalizing marijuana. So personally I won’t be waiting in line, but I really don’t want to have to deal with more traffic due to any new business, regardless of whether they’re selling marijuana or any other product.

Some folks are worried about safety and security. I am not worried about the safety and security plan of Core Empowerment. I don’t think anyone is busting into the place in the middle of the night and stealing everything or robbing the place. You have to show ID multiple times, walk through separate rooms, only a certain number of people can come through the business in an hour, and they’re going to set up pedestrian signage outside of the business and more. Daniel Linskey, former superintendent-in-chief of the Boston Police Department, now of Kroll Experts, is leading the security plan. He’s the real deal.

Before getting to parking – can you imagine an alcohol store having to do any of those things that a marijuana store is forced to do? A maximum number of customers per hour? Showing ID multiple times? Multiple rooms? Heck, the products are going to be barcoded and tracked, so if they are misused, the customer won’t be allowed back to purchase again. But alcohol is a long-established industry, the stores are already open and it’s hard to go back and change the regulations.

Also, Core Empowerment is requiring customers to sign a good neighbor agreement. You don’t need to do that when purchasing alcohol.

If You Sell It -- Where Will They Park?

Parking is a legitimate concern as Hyde Square is already packed and double parking is a regular occurrence. The Whole Foods parking lot is a Tetris-like maze on most days and nights. It’s already seemingly too small to service its own customers. Limiting the number of customers per hour into the dispensary could lead to fewer parking issues. Core Empowerment is also batting around the idea of a shared valet service with area restaurants and is looking at leasing about 12 spots in a parking lot several blocks away, according to Universalhub.com. How many people will be driving to the business? How many people will be walking to it? Perhaps taking a bus, Uber or the T? Obviously, it’s not possible to know the answers to these questions at this point.

People will be annoyed if long lines or parking issues  affect the neighborhood. I’ll be really annoyed if I hear that recreational marijuana customers are parking on nearby residential streets. That would be unfair to those residents. People might start using space savers all yearlong. Take a ride or stroll through those streets and you’ll see they’re already packed with vehicles.

Oddly, and what seems like an overreach of enforcement, Core’s attorney said the business’ security team “would patrol the area and that customers found parking in resident-only spaces or even in the neighboring Whole Foods parking lot – would be barred from the shop,” according to Universalhub.com.

That doesn’t sound good. I wouldn’t want to see a security guard walking up and down my street looking at cars and drivers. How many people are going to know that they may be working for a recreational marijuana company to track down customers not parking in the right place? Probably not a lot of people. I could see people calling the police upon seeing these security guards “patrolling” the area. But that’s just one proposal to quell parking issues.

Long Lines. But For How Long?

I spoke with At-Large City Councilor Michael Flaherty, who was the lead sponsor in creating Boston’s zoning marijuana buffer law. It states that no marijuana dispensary, medicinal or recreational, can be within a ½ mile of each other. It is smart legislation for the time being as the recreational marijuana business gets started.

I understand why the law was created. Boston doesn’t want to have a marijuana store on every corner. Commercial property owners, many of which are corporations with deeper pockets than, say, an independent property owner, could jack up rents in hope that a marijuana store could move in. Mind you, this thinking means you think recreational marijuana stores are going to make lots and lots of green. And they will probably make lots of money. In 2016, the marijuana industry made approximately 6.5 billion in the U.S., according to statista.com. That’s legal money. There are also billions being generated from illegal sales of marijuana.

Flaherty explained that the buffer zone is a zoning law just like all other zoning laws. That means a proponent could apply for zoning relief, leading to marijuana businesses closer to each other than ½ a mile. Of course, as Flaherty rightly pointed out, the neighborhood would have to support the business. Heck, the Boston Zoning Board of Appeal loves giving out zoning relief – so it’s not farfetched that zoning relief is provided – but maybe in a few years after recreational marijuana businesses are up and running…

…And The Demand Outweighs the Supply

This is my greatest concern. Boston has been dragging its heels on permitting recreational marijuana businesses. There isn’t one recreational business open in the largest city of the state yet. Not one. The city has signed host agreements with multiple companies, including Core Empowerment.

By the end of March 16, there will be 13 open recreational marijuana businesses in Massachusetts, according to the Boston Globe. How many recreational businesses, particularly in Boston, will actually be open when Core Empowerment opens? I understand the city wants to make sure it’s permitting good, solid, well-planned and equitable businesses, but they’re moving very slowly. It looks like the city is hoping that multiple dispensaries will open on the same day or within days of each other. That will certainly reduce lines, but lines will still be long those initial days.

There are more than 680,000 Boston residents. How many of them are going to want to purchase marijuana after not being able to legally purchase it for their entire lives? Then think of all the people who come from the suburbs and surrounding areas, say New Hampshire or Rhode Island.

Flaherty asserted that there are going to be long lines when the dispensaries open. People will wait in lines for hours, just as they do for the new iPhone, sneakers or event tickets. That’s probably true. Check out the long lines that have lasted at recreational marijuana businesses. People were waiting for seven hours for the first two that opened. They were having to park away from the businesses and then be bused in and bused out. But those long lines have somewhat subsided since.

I get that it’s hard to vet and approve reputable recreational marijuana businesses while following the state and city guidelines. Things are also made difficult because very few — and it is very few — financial institutions will loan money to a recreational marijuana business because of the hazy federal legal status of cannabis. And unlike a restaurant, which takes hundreds of thousands to open in Boston, a marijuana business takes millions.

Judging Success

All in all, Core Empowerment will be financially successful. The more important question is: How will success be judged by the Jamaica Plain community?

There will be long lines. For how long? It’s hard to tell because there is nothing to compare it to. Colorado? California? Oregon? Washington? Each state started marijuana legalization in different ways. Massachusetts legislators, members of the statewide cannabis commission and business owners have all visited numerous states to see what works and what didn’t work.

There may be vehicular traffic. It could be for days, maybe weeks. Maybe it will just be opening day. Who knows?

How will other businesses be affected by a recreational marijuana business opening near them? Will the restaurants get more business with an increased amount of foot traffic or will regular customers not be able to get there due to traffic?

One judge of success, or the opposite, is will products end up in the wrong hands? And will safety be compromised in the neighborhood. I’m going to say no and no.

I wish we had the answers. But we’ll just have to wait and see.

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