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THIS WEEK IN WEED

Prominent executive at NETA parent company fired after husband opens competing marijuana store

Move by largest cannabis operator in Massachusetts prompts backlash, boycott

Cannabis advocate and attorney Kim Napoli held her daughter Gianna outside the Hempest store on Boston's Newbury Street in this 2013 file photo.
Cannabis advocate and attorney Kim Napoli held her daughter Gianna outside the Hempest store on Boston's Newbury Street in this 2013 file photo.Suzanne Kreiter

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It’s no exaggeration to say that the legal marijuana industry in Massachusetts owes Kim and Jon Napoli a debt of gratitude.

The Hempest clothing and accessories store that Jon Napoli founded on Boston’s Newbury Street in 1995, with other locations opening later in Harvard Square and Northampton, was a critical, early center of gravity for the nascent movement that eventually culminated in 2016′s successful cannabis legalization ballot initiative.

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Throughout the subsequent decades, the Napolis were among the most visible figures in the fight to decriminalize the drug and then legalize its medical and recreational use. Kim Napoli, an attorney, served as the 2016 campaign’s outreach director, while the couple hosted numerous fundraisers.

The reward for all those efforts? A pink slip from the state’s biggest pot company.

Parallel, the parent company of New England Treatment Access, confirmed to TWIW on Monday that it fired Kim Napoli — the only Black woman on the firm’s leadership team — from an executive position where she had been overseeing its much-touted efforts at boosting equity in the legal marijuana sector after decades of racially disproportionate arrests.

Parallel said it was acting under a corporate non-competition policy after her husband successfully applied for a permit to sell recreational marijuana at the Hempest’s store in Northampton, where NETA also runs a dispensary.

“Our company ‘Conflicts of Interest’ policy does not allow Kim to continue in her current role,” a spokesman said in a brief statement. “Kim has contributed much to our organization, and we want to thank her for all she has done.”

The Hempest’s plans, of course, had been public for years, as opening a licensed cannabis facility in Massachusetts requires numerous hearings before neighbors, local officials, and state regulators. And Jon Napoli insisted his wife, who said she could not comment in detail on her firing, long ago disclosed to NETA that he planned to sell marijuana at the Hempest, even though she is not involved in the project.

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“No one was keeping any secrets,” Jon Napoli said in an interview. “And Kim doesn’t have anything to do with this store — she doesn’t work for the Hempest or advise me on it or benefit financially at all. What would she even do? Sabotage NETA somehow to help me? They know for a fact that she’s been their number-one cheerleader and that she’s way too professional to do anything like that.”

Parallel’s decision comes as the $1.8 billion Atlanta-based company is preparing to go public, with plans to open 86 dispensaries in eight states by the end of next year.

It also comes as the Napolis’ fourth and youngest child, one-year-old Shea, is hospitalized with acute myeloid leukemia, a rare and often deadly blood cancer that has necessitated months of chemotherapy.

But replacing the Parallel health insurance policy that helped cover the astronomical cost of inpatient cancer treatment could be difficult: The company won’t say whether its non-compete policies allow Kim to immediately find work with another marijuana operator.

“It’s a gut punch,” Jon Napoli said. “Kim has been spending every night sleeping at the hospital while I try to run a business and take care of the other three kids, and now we’re scrambling. She gives everything to this company — her good will, her good name, her energy, talent, and experience — only to get treated like this at the end? It’s just not right.”

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The programs Kim Napoli launched as Parallel’s senior director of corporate social responsibility and community affairs included grants to minority license applicants and a jail-to-jobs cannabis industry training program at Roxbury Community College. (Licensed pot firms in Massachusetts are required by the state to develop such “positive impact plans” for benefiting communities hit hardest by the war on drugs).

She also goaded NETA into dropping its support of an industry association lawsuit challenging the Cannabis Control Commission’s equity-first pot delivery licensing policy, a stand that sparked a chain reaction of defections by other dispensary companies and ultimately resulted in the complaint being dropped.

Indeed, it was precisely her long experience and credibility on such matters that made Kim Napoli an attractive hire in the first place. (Parallel’s chief executive, in contrast, is a billionaire chewing gum heir who initially balked at entering the marijuana industry in 2017 because he thought it would end with him “wearing orange” in a prison.)

News of the firing has members of the state’s highly engaged cannabis community seeing red. They have previously clashed with NETA over its antiunion efforts and treatment of workers.

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Advocates are already planning a boycott of NETA’s stores in Brookline and Northampton, accusing Parallel of exploiting Kim Napoli’s standing to polish its image before firing her unfairly over her husband’s business activities to appease distant investors.

“What Parallel did shocks the conscience,” said Grant Smith, a cannabis activist who has helped marshal several successful advocacy efforts. “The only possible response is a community-wide boycott.”

Shaleen Title, a former commissioner at the Cannabis Control Commission, said Kim Napoli had provided invaluable expertise to the young agency as a member of the state’s official Cannabis Advisory Board, and slammed Parallel for letting her go.

“Firing someone with Kim Napoli’s reputation, expertise, and credibility during a family crisis is cruel and demonstrates a shocking lack of judgment,” Title said. “Kim was the face of legalization when it was still a political risk, and I consider her the conscience of the industry.”

Parallel said the company’s commitment to equity is “steadfast,” and praised Kim Napoli for helping to “build the foundation” of those efforts.


Dan Adams can be reached at daniel.adams@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Dan_Adams86.