The new ordinance, if it survives a possible mayoral veto, would limit the number of cannabis retailers allowed in the city at 12, with some exemptions.
By Dusty Christensen
NORTHAMPTON — The Northampton City Council has voted to cap the number of retail cannabis dispensaries in the city at 12.
The decision came after hours of debate over the proposed limit on pot shops in the city, which is currently home to 11 — down from 12 after The Source, a dispensary on Pleasant Street, closed in December. The number of cannabis retailers in Northampton, where the state’s first dispensary opened in 2018, is similar to the amount operating in the much larger cities of Boston and Worcester.
Ultimately, councilors voted 6-3 to impose the 12-shop cap, which includes exemptions for those who qualify as “social equity” license applicants under state law, delivery businesses and retailers who have already signed a host-community agreement with City Hall.
Those voting in favor of the cap were At-large Councilor Jamila Gore, Ward 1 Councilor Stanley Moulton, Ward 2 Councilor Karen Foster, Ward 5 Councilor Alex Jarrett, Ward 6 Councilor Marianne LaBarge and Ward 7 Councilor Rachel Maiore. The ordinance now heads to the desk of Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra, who has said she opposes the cap. If the mayor vetoes the measure, the City Council will need six votes to override her veto.
The cap was the subject of nearly all of the public comments and discussion among councilors at Thursday’s meeting, which lasted nearly five hours until just before midnight.
Most of those who spoke during the public-comment portion of the meeting supported the cap, citing everything from concerns about the health of youth to Northampton’s increasing reputation as a regional cannabis hub.
“I can attest to the rise in extremely negative impacts of THC use among our youth,” said city resident Jordana Willers. She said that she is an expert in youth and young-adult substance use and has seen worsening mental health and youth addiction in the city.
Another city resident, Jackie Ballance, said that when she was in college in the 1960s she could have never dreamed that there would one day be too many pot shops in town.
“Really and truly this is the nicest problem anybody should have, but still, if I had my druthers, we would have a cap in the single digits,” Ballance said. That, she added, would still keep Northampton and its visitors “high for a long time.”
While the vast majority of those speaking at the meeting voiced support for a cap, a handful of participants questioned the value of limiting the number of pot shops in town.
“You’re basically protecting all of the businesses that are currently in place,” Mimi Odgers said. “I just don’t think that choosing the magic number of 12 makes any sense … Government shouldn’t be picking winners and losers when it comes to business.”
Dick Evans, a Northampton lawyer who was involved in the fight for cannabis legalization in Massachusetts for decades and chaired the campaign that ultimately won legalization in 2016, spoke out in opposition to the cap. Evans, who now represents industry applications for licenses and permitting, questioned why the City Council had brought forward the measure.
“Is it to protect the public health by driving consumers to the illegal market where products are untested?” he asked.
After the public weighed in on the proposed limit, councilors spent several hours discussing its merits.
Foster noted that public health experts had come before the City Council with data showing the harmful impacts of easy access to cannabis on youth. She also challenged some who suggested that youth couldn’t get access to legal cannabis because of age limits, noting that she was able to drink alcohol before she turned 21.
“Don’t mistake that it’s not easier to get,” she said. “It is and the impacts on young people have been shown.”
Maiore said that no councilors want to go back to the so-called War on Drugs or to stigmatize cannabis, but that the city’s health experts have called for a cap on cannabis retailers in the city.
LaBarge said that some seem to want to protect their ability to profit from cannabis and, in the process, “saturate” the city with dispensaries.
“As city councilors, we are not anti-business,” she said. “We have a job, and we have heard from so many people to place a cap.”
The councilors opposed to a limit on cannabis retailers questioned whether a cap would actually address those issues.
“I know there’s lots of concerns about kids and addiction,” said Council President Jim Nash, who represents Ward 3. “Having a cap to solve it – I don’t think it’s going to do it.”
Ward 4 Councilor Garrick Perry agreed with Nash that “we’re all concerned about our youth.” But he said the ordinance, as written, doesn’t address those legitimate concerns. He said he has watched one person gain many of the city’s liquor licenses and crowd out others from the market, and worried the same could happen with cannabis.
At-large Councilor Marissa Elkins shared those concerns over a “secondary market” for licenses, arguing the cap would incentivize businesses to sell their licenses to industry behemoths.
“I’m really concerned that a cap at this point is going to freeze the market,” Elkins also said. “We have 12 and we’ll always have 12.”
But the “yes” votes ultimately prevailed. Moulton noted that neighboring communities like Amherst and Hadley have passed similar limits on cannabis retailers.
“This is not radical,” he said. “We would join some 60 other municipalities in the state that have placed a cap on dispensaries.”
If the mayor vetoes the measure, the earliest the City Council could consider overriding her veto would be at its next meeting on Feb. 2.
Dusty Christensen is an independent investigative reporter based in western Massachusetts. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @dustyc123.
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