Nearly four years after Massachusetts voters legalized recreational marijuana, Boston has its first adult-use cannabis store.
Pure Oasis, which opened at 11 a.m. in Dorchester to dozens waiting in line, is also the first marijuana store owned by people in the state’s economic empowerment program, designed to aid those who were targeted by the war on drugs. Its grand opening marked a milestone in Massachusetts’ pioneering effort to use some of legalization’s windfall to rectify racial and social inequities.
"This is part of why we did this — we set out on this journey a long time ago to show people who look like us that if you work hard and you persevere, then success is soon to come,” co-owner Kevin Hart said Monday.
Hart, 45, a hospital director of operations, and his co-owner Kobie Evans, 48, a real estate agent, decided to start the business during the campaign to legalize marijuana in August 2016. They were sitting at Slade’s, a long-running Black-owned bar, lamenting the lack of wealth among people of color in Boston.
As Black men, both had experienced being targeted by the police. Evans had tried pot, but he never loved it. Hart had also avoided it since being arrested for smoking pot in a college dorm room.
Nevertheless, they wanted to seize the opportunity they saw when Massachusetts voters approved legalization in November 2016. The law included the nation’s first mandate to ensure that the disproportionately Black, Latino, and low-income communities with high rates of pot arrests benefit from the new industry.
“Pure Oasis has set a wonderful precedent here,” said Commissioner Shaleen Title, who has championed equity initiatives for the Cannabis Control Commission. "I think we’ll see many more of these stores that are hiring people from the community, that are giving back to the community, and that are fulfilling the vision that Massachusetts voters had.”
Customers visiting Pure Oasis on Monday were largely Black and local, many having walked to the store. Many locals inside — employees and customers — said they were proud to see a customer base that looks like their neighborhood.
"I wanted to support a Black-owned business in the neighborhood and be a part of history,” said Kevin Knox, 33. "It shows the kids in the neighborhood that you can actually be able to open a business.”
Another customer, Lisa Clement, 55, a retired cook, was first in line, having arrived at 9 a.m. excited to purchase some edibles to treat pain.
“This is good — now people don’t have to be scared about the police stopping them,” Clement said. "It brings a lot of business and jobs to the community.”
Pure Oasis’s storefront is mostly unmarked from the outside with shaded windows and no notable signage. But inside, customers are quickly greeted with the familiar skunky smell of a marijuana dispensary.
The store is filled with natural light, and the walls are lined with glass cases and wooden shelves, displaying everything from marijuana flower and prerolls to handcrafted smokeless ashtrays.
Massachusetts’s cannabis industry has evolved at a far slower pace than in other states, largely due to layers of bureaucracy and bottlenecks in local and state government. Within Massachusetts, Boston — which will eventually have at least 52 pot stores, according to state requirements — has lagged behind other municipalities in approving retailers.
The state’s first two cannabis stores opened in November 2018, in Northampton and Leicester, near Worcester. Now, at least 40 stores have opened, generating $550 million in sales in 15 months. Greater Boston’s first cannabis store, New England Treatment Access, opened a year ago in Brookline.
Many customers from Dorchester said they were thrilled to not have to drive to Brookline anymore.
"This is much more convenient,” said Sheryle Cox, 40, a mall make-up artist who finds cannabis brings her relief from pain and stress.
Mayor Martin J. Walsh congratulated Pure Oasis’s owners on Friday. He rejected suggestions that Boston should have moved faster.
"I would rather be consistent and steady and have a very good outcome than rush and start approving facilities all over,” Walsh said.
Pure Oasis’s owners received city approval for their Dorchester store fairly quickly. But for their other two planned stores, in Mattapan and Medford, they have joined scores of other businesses struggling to move forward with local governments, paying thousands of dollars in monthly rent to hold the real estate.
Evans said Monday they want to use their success to reinvest in the neighborhood.
"The war on drugs had a very detrimental impact on neighborhoods just like this, and that’s why we’re here, to try and remedy some of those negative effects and to try and create a balance,” he said.
So far, just 18 of more than 300 pot licenses awarded in Massachusetts have gone to people in the state’s economic empowerment or social equity programs, which offer training and faster reviews for people from areas with high marijuana arrest rates.
Company leaders say they served about 970 customers Monday. The store’s first customer was Niambe McIntosh, daughter of legendary Jamaican musician Peter Tosh.
McIntosh, who grew up just blocks from Pure Oasis, said she was honored to be part of the store’s historic opening.
"This really just begins to kind of move the needle,” said McIntosh, who said her brother had been incarcerated for a marijuana conviction and was severely injured while in prison. "It won’t change the past, but we can slowly make steps to really help the community.”
One customer, Nico Robinson, 31, a housekeeper, said he was thrilled to have more convenient access to cannabis, which helps calm him and improve his mood.
"Weed-smoking helps me be a better husband, a better father,” Robinson said.
To control crowds Monday, Pure Oasis had several police details and security watching for people blocking the sidewalk, parking problems, and public pot smoking.
One neighbor said he was "cautiously optimistic” about Pure Oasis.
"I see marijuana as no more harmful than alcohol,” said Fabian Depeiza, a vocational counselor. "Hopefully, this is economic development, not economic removal — or what they call gentrification.”
Pure Oasis’s owners said they have hired 40 people, largely locals and some with criminal records, and have chosen local minority contractors.
Boston officials said several other stores will soon open including: Ascend Mass by North Station, Berkshire Roots in East Boston, and Core Empowerment in Jamaica Plain.
Walsh recently appointed a cannabis board that will recommend businesses to move forward with a goal of boosting cannabis businesses owned by local entrepreneurs from groups most affected by drug policing.
"It was very surreal,” said Alexis Tkachuk, the city’s director of emerging industries, who gave Pure Oasis its official operating license Monday. "When we hear about how big this industry is, nationally, internationally, to be able to present license number one to local entrepreneurs was really something the City of Boston was proud of.”
Naomi Martin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.