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Florence Residents Rally to Stop Pot Shop

A potential thirteenth marijuana dispensary in Northampton has met resistance.

By Matt Berg

NORTHAMPTON — After federal agents raided Ezra Parzybok’s home in Florence seven years ago, confiscating dozens of marijuana plants and threatening to take his children in the process, the community widely supported him. 

Over the years, Parzybok earned a reputation as a respected cannabis expert and local caregiver who helped patients seek alternative medicine to chronic diseases. After the raid and legalization of the drug, he shifted to a career as a marijuana consultant.

But in recent weeks, Parzybok has faced intense backlash at public meetings from residents opposed to Euphorium, the first proposed marijuana retail shop slated to move into a prominent storefront in the village’s historic center. 

“In some ways, this has been more stressful for me than being raided,” Parzybok, the shop’s consultant and de facto representative, told The Shoestring. “There were lots of comments like, ‘We do not want you here,’ ‘Just go away,’ ‘Go find somewhere else to live.’ Those comments were very painful for me.”

If Euphorium opens, pending the mayor’s approval, Northampton will be home to more than a dozen marijuana shops, all of which opened within the past four years. Nearby towns including Amherst and Easthampton have caps — eight and six, respectively — on how many marijuana retailers can open in town, while Northampton does not. Under the leadership of former mayor David Narkewicz, the city drew national attention for its pro-legal cannabis enterprise stance.

As the area continues to draw new shops, however, local leaders and residents have proposed enacting a city-wide cap, citing the potential for oversaturation of the market, increased competition between shop owners, and drug exposure to youth.

To Florence residents, the issue is more personal. The identity of the quaint downtown — a nostalgic strip of small businesses beckoning back to mid-century America — is changing, and many locals don’t want a marijuana dispensary with a prominent storefront shop to welcome visitors into town.

After speaking with residents about the issue, Ward 5 City Councilor Alex Jarrett, who represents much of Florence, found that people were concerned about maintaining the family-friendly neighborhood vibe and the potential for drug exposure to youth that the shop would bring, rather than the issue of marijuana itself.

“There’s a lot of folks who have a very strong idea about Florence’s identity,” Jarrett told The Shoestring. “When I first heard it was coming, I was like, ‘Oh boy, this is going to be a thing,’ based on the feelings people have about Florence.”

Jarrett’s assumptions were proven correct time and time again over the past two months. 

In August, a community meeting intended to facilitate a reasoned discussion with locals and the shop owners drew more than 150 residents and devolved into shouting and interjections from the crowd. Angry residents attended another meeting in early September, interrupting Parzybok’s presentation despite being told to virtually submit questions and concerns. A petition opposing the shop and claiming that a “dispensary anywhere in the village of Florence is wrong” has nearly 600 signatures.

Situated about three miles from the majority of Northampton retailers, Florence has avoided attracting dispensaries ever since the city became a hub for marijuana entrepreneurs. As such, the village has also evaded association with being the “cannabis capital of Massachusetts,” a distance many residents would like to maintain. 

“I do not want to see the center of Florence reflect downtown Northampton. We can no longer depend on city government to do the right thing. But we residents can try,” a resident commented on the petition.

Regardless, the sales of two iconic blocks, Goodwin and Parsons, in July, have forced a shift in the village’s character. Rent prices that had stayed stagnant for decades were raised by the new landlords, forcing tenants and businesses out. As a result, Pizza Factory, which had slung pies from Goodwin Block’s most prominent storefront for 15 years, will vacate the space by the end of the year — making room for Euphorium.

For Marco Aranzullo, a marijuana entrepreneur who plans to open the pot shop with his father, the message from residents has been clear: you’re not welcome here.

“Even though there’s people that don’t want you someplace, I didn’t expect — especially at the first meeting — the level of anger that people showed up with,” Aranzullo told The Shoestring. “People came as if we had already done something wrong.”

The Northampton based Strategic Planning Initiative for Families and Youth (SPIFFY) has been active in the conversation about cannabis legalization and retailer caps. SPIFFY is part of the Collaborative for Educational Services, a government-funded nonprofit organization in Northampton that aims to provide programs and services to local schools, often with the goal of improving social justice and equity. In an email to The Shoestring maintain the group are neutral on this specific store but seeking to educate the public about “best practices related to youth substance use prevention.”

At a city council subcommittee meeting on Sept. 19, Caroline Johnson, SPIFFY’s public health data and evaluation specialist, butted heads with Parzybok, disagreeing on data points presented by Johnson to the subcommittee. Citing data gathered over the past year, Johnson said an increase in dispensaries can lead to accidental poisonings to youth and claimed that marijuana is the primary reason that minors seek inpatient treatment for substance abuse. 

“We’ve just felt compelled to educate everyone about what we’ve been learning,” Johnson told The Shoestring. “That’s the direct connection about why we were at this most recent city council meeting — to get the data out there so that we can have an informed science-based discussion of what’s really going on.”

Rather than appealing to the residents’ concerns about the shifting identity of Florence, the nonprofit is framing marijuana use and a high number of stores as an issue particularly affecting students, youth of color and those in the LGBTQ community. Across multiple different data points gathered, there’s a disproportionate negative impact of the cannabis industry on those communities in Hampshire County, Johnson said.

“As more storefronts open up, we’re not coming at this from a ‘don’t do drugs’ perspective. We’re coming at this from an equity perspective,” she said.

Parzybok conceded that data exists suggesting marijuana use may damage the brain or have adverse effects. However, it’s also important to consider existing barriers to legally buying the drug, such as age limits, and the medical benefits marijuana can have for those with chronic illnesses or mental health disorders including anxiety and ADHD, he said.

“I hate to say it, but if you only present one side of the argument, that is the literal definition of propaganda,” Parzybok said. “The whole crux of this issue is that cannabis is here. Having information that only supports one side of the cannabis debate is not going to solve the debate or protect children.”

There’s a more reasonable argument, he said, against Euphorium’s opening: the very visible location. 

If you’re driving into Florence center from the west, it’s difficult to miss the large red awning advertising Pizza Factory. That’s where Euphorium plans to set up its renovated space, down the road from a welcome-to-town sign and placed at a four-corner intersection.

“If that sign says ‘Pot Shop’ on it, I get it,” Parzybok said. “People would find that to be offensive to their own relationship with the town.”

Due to its proximity to local schools, children will frequently walk by the storefront, Johnson said. Residents also worry about how close the store would be to ServiceNet, a treatment facility that helps people with substance disorder issues. 

But clients at ServiceNet’s location in Northampton, which is next to the NETA dispensary, reported that they had access to marijuana before the dispensary was built, Susan Stubbs, the president of the agency, said at the subcommittee meeting. Clients have also reported that dispensaries are too expensive for low-income people to frequent, she said.

And there are regulations to keep children from accessing the marijuana products, including products being blocked from view of those passing by, Aranzullo said.

“It’s nothing new, they already know that cannabis exists, whether it’s on that corner or down the street. It’s not like cannabis is a secret,” he said.

Until more research is done, Jarrett won’t make a decision on whether there should be a cap on marijuana retailers in the city. He shares the concern with SPIFFY and others that more competition between shops may cause owners to “cut corners” to survive. 

SPIFFY Manager Heather Warner also believes more research needs to be done before making a determination on limits, since it’s a topic residents are clearly passionate about. A moratorium on future openings, though it may be inconvenient to Aranzullo and other owners, could be a promising compromise, she said in an interview with The Shoestring.

“Let’s not just sign stuff and ignore that this is a really hot issue right now,” Warner said. 

Enacting a cap is a good start, she said. If a shop goes out of business, retiring their marijuana license and “naming a different cap that’s maybe a little lower would be what I would shoot for.”

For her part, Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra says she is “listening closely to the community discussion about the proposed Euphorium cannabis retail shop in Florence, having heard many opinions on both sides.” “In addition,” her statement to The Shoestring continues, “I am following the conversation the City Council is having on this topic.”

Current City Council President Jim Nash (Ward 3) co-sponsored a 2018 ordinance that would have capped the number of licenses for cannabis dispensaries in Northampton at ten, and was ultimately voted down 5-4. At the time, Nash likened the ordinance to a “surge protector” that would protect the city from possible unforeseen impacts of legal marijuana.

“It is about ensuring that our new retail marijuana industry will not grow in an unchecked manner and change the fabric of our community without us having a say,” Nash said at a city council meeting in 2018

Nash did not respond to a request for comment on this article.

An earlier version of this article misattributed sentiments expressed by former councilor Dennis Bidwell to Council President Jim Nash. It has been updated to accurately reflect Nash’s position at the time. The piece has also been updated to reflect that SPIFFY did not “spearhead” the opposition to the dispensary. The nonprofit maintains that they are neutral about Euphorium but rather that they are educating public about drug prevention.

Matt Berg is a freelance journalist based in Western Massachusetts. He has previously written for The New York Times, The Boston Globe, POLITICO, and MassLive. Image: Euphorium.

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