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Proposed cannabis shop sparks tension in Grove Hall

Saraya Wintersmith, WGBH News
Proposed cannabis shop sparks tension in Grove Hall
Pure Oasis owners Kobe Evans and Kevin Hart are planning to open a marijuana dispensary in Grove Hall in November. COURTESY PHOTO

From the outside, the building on Blue Hill Avenue looks almost like any other storefront in Grove Hall. But behind the nondescript facade, a recreational marijuana store is opening next month, its owners say.

It will be the first in Boston. It is already the first to receive both a provisional license to operate and certification as an economic empowerment business.

That certification is meant to fulfill a state mandate to foster equity by helping people and communities disproportionately harmed by marijuana law enforcement enter the now-legal industry. Grove Hall is one of 29 such communities.

The well-intentioned aims of the state law have run into conflict with the interests of some people who live or work near what will become the Pure Oasis marijuana store.

City officials and equity advocates view the shop as an example of Boston leading the way, while some residents view it as a hurried dump of yet another vice in their disinvested neighborhoods.

“This is going to be the first economic empowerment-owned business in the entire state,” declared Alexis Tkachuk, director of Boston’s Office of Emerging Industries in a recent interview. “Boston is very proud of that.”

Opponents like Mike Kozu, co-director of the nonprofit Project Rebuild and Improve Grove Hall Together (R.I.G.H.T.), argue that the city rushed its part of the approval process and a marijuana store will change the fabric the neighborhood – one he maintains is still recovering from the crime and violence of decades past.

“It sends the wrong message to young people,” Kozu said on a recent walk near his office along Blue Hill Avenue. “Much like the tobacco industry, much like smoke shops, much like liquor stores — that’s really not the answer for what the future of young people in the community is. A marijuana shop, to me, leads us down the same wrong path.”

Even though he’s not a Grove Hall resident, Kozu is among the neighborhood’s most vocal marijuana opponents. He has exchanged emails with city officials since Pure Oasis’ owners signed their contract with the city.

Kozu and others contend the location is too close to Jeremiah E. Burke High School, even though the city has a certified document asserting that the building meets the required distance of 500 feet.

The opposing reactions to the marijuana store represent part of the difficulty in trying to build an equitable industry. While many agree that is a good goal, residents in places deemed “disproportionately impacted” by the war on drugs don’t necessarily want the newly-legal substance in their backyards.

In Mattapan, residents have expressed similar concerns. Yet they still have seen a proposal advance. The city recently signed a contract with another economic empowerment applicant.

Alexis Finneran Tkachuk, who executes marijuana shop contracts on Boston’s behalf, said even though public opinion is considered in the approval process, resistance without a “glaring concern” is not enough to stop a marijuana shop from opening.

“We understand that Boston is a city where some people want to promote equity and expediency for equity candidates in this industry,” she explained. “But we also recognize that we represent all residents of the city of Boston, and that’s why we put the process in place, and that’s why we have rejected other sites that we don’t feel are suitable to communities.”

Tkachuk pointed to three proposals that Boston has thus far rejected – one in East Boston, another in Fields Corner and a third in the South End.

“The voters in Boston did approve this, and we are complying with state law, but we are very respectful [of] residents for how they live, raise children here [and] work here,” she added. 

Tkachuk said she received four documented statements in support of Pure Oasis during the public comment period.

Still, City Councilor Kim Janey, whose district borders the soon-to-open shop, acknowledges that public meetings and community conversations about Pure Oasis, and marijuana more broadly, have been contentious.

“This is difficult. It’s scary. It’s new. Change is hard, and I recognize that,” Janey said emphatically in an interview.

But marijuana is now legal, and in her view, the challenge is how to best incorporate residents’ concerns into the seemingly inevitable proliferation of cannabis businesses.

“Making sure that the right operators are coming to our neighborhoods when they’re opening up shop is very important,” Janey said.

Ed Gaskin, executive director of Greater Grove Hall Main Streets said his conversation with Janey shifted his stance from wary to more concerned with community benefits.

“Once I had learned that none of the other types of objections that communities made were going to stop it, that changed the dynamics on what the focus should be on,” he explained in an interview.

Gaskin said he still believes the community should have a clearer mechanism for opposing cannabis stores in their neighborhoods, but Greater Grove Hall Main Streets will support them as they open “just like we would support the liquor stores in the community or the health center in the community.”

Richard Harding, cofounder of the newly-launched Real Action for Cannabis Equity, is betting that more people will come to a similar conclusion as more marijuana stores open across the city.

“Once this stuff gets rolling, you won’t have those same conversations, and everybody [will have] to understand and accept that this will happen in your neighborhood,” he said during a telephone interview.

“There’s still this taboo about cannabis,” he noted.

Harding said empowerment applicants should not be limited to areas of disproportionate impact by drug laws.

One remedy his organization advocates is a state rule that every other license granted goes to an empowerment applicant.

Another approach it has proposed would be for municipalities, or the state, to designate prime locations — high traffic, transit-oriented shopping centers — then distribute them evenly between regular and empowerment applicants. Those two changes, he said, would help ensure equity across neighborhoods and types of marijuana businesses.

“It’s just giving everybody a fair shot,” Harding said.

Kozu, who has vowed to continue challenging the shop in Grove Hall, said he believes the economic benefits of the new industry are overstated.

“It’s like a liquor store. How much economic empowerment does a liquor store provide?” he asked, skeptically.

Kozu justified his intense scrutiny of the would-be shop owners because “we get stuck having to clean up issues that other people create.”

Saraya Wintersmith covers Roxbury, Dorchester

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