Northampton City Council expected to decide Thursday on pot shop cap

By ALEXANDER MACDOUGALL

Staff Writer

Published: 01-18-2023 7:44 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Capping the number of cannabis retailers citywide is coming before the City Council Thursday night for a final vote, and councilors appear divided on the issue.

The proposed ordinance is in its second reading, after receiving a neutral recommendation from the city’s Committee on Legislative Matters, whose members also split on the measure.

Despite not even ranking in the top 50 of highest-populated municipalities in the state, Northampton currently ranks second in the number of cannabis retailers in Massachusetts, only behind Boston, according to the Cannabis Control Commission. The city currently has 11 retailers, following the closure of The Source dispensary in December. Other municipalities in the state, including Amherst and Hadley, have imposed license caps in the past.

The ordinance is being sponsored by councilors Marianne LaBarge of Ward 6 , Karen Foster of Ward 2, and Rachel Maiore of Ward 7. In an opinion piece in the Gazette on Tuesday, the councilors explained their reasoning behind the cap, stating that the proliferation and normalization of marijuana stores in the city was having a negative impact on the city’s youth. The councilors cited data from Strategic Planning Initiative for Families and Youth (SPIFFY) to back up their claim.

“Adolescent cannabis use is significantly higher in Northampton than national averages,” they wrote. “Northampton teens are more likely than teens countywide to report that legalization has made them more likely to use cannabis and has increased their access to cannabis.”

Jim Nash of Ward 3, who along with former councilor Dennis Bidwell had supported a retail cap back in 2018, when the first dispensaries were being constructed in the state, has since reversed his position and now is against such a cap.

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In a separate opinion article in the Gazette, Nash and Bidwell said that limiting of marijuana businesses would further incentivize users to buy on the black market, allowing it to fall easier into the hands of youth.

“The public safety and public health concerns that motivated a proposed cap five years ago have simply not come to pass,” they wrote. “Had we capped retail outlets at 10 back in 2018, the real experience of legal marijuana sales in Northampton would have most likely convinced the city to rescind the cap as unnecessary.”

As a member of the legislative committee, Nash initially voted against recommending the ordinance capping the number of dispensaries. He later changed his vote to neutral in order to advance it to the full council for a final decision.

Also opposed to the measure is Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra. Sciarra stated at the legislative committee hearing her belief that limiting the number of licenses for marijuana retailers would instead create a secondary market where new retailers would simply bid on existing licenses to set up shop in the city.

“Northampton’s restriction-free approach has resulted not only in more safe and legal cannabis, but also fewer empty storefronts downtown, good-paying jobs in the cannabis industry, and significant local tax revenues,” she said at the Jan. 9 meeting.

The meeting takes place virtually at 7 p.m.

Alexander MacDougall can be reached at amacdougall@gazettenet.com.

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