For years, the brick storefront in Grove Hall housed a pair of bustling family businesses owned by Minister Emeritus Don Muhammad, the longtime leader of the Nation of Islam in Boston.
Now, a group of five entrepreneurs of color wants to turn the vacant building at the corner of Blue Hill Avenue and Devon Street into a cannabis courier and delivery service, much to the chagrin of the Muhammad family.
The proposal has created a vexing political dilemma for city leaders, including the new mayor: Should the city give a group of applicants from marginalized communities access to the lucrative cannabis industry, which has been dominated by white corporate players in Massachusetts? Or should it heed the warnings of Muhammad’s family and other faith and community leaders, who have worked for decades to keep drugs out of the neighborhood?
“Marijuana is not this benign drug that people try to promote it to be,” said Minister Randy Muhammad, leader of Muhammad Mosque No. 11, the Boston headquarters of the Nation of Islam, who laments that there’s already a pot retail shop a block away.
At a press conference with other community activists and clergy last month, Randy Muhammad said the proposal undermines a half-century of work by the now retired Don Muhammad, who alongside police, political leaders, and other Black clergy labored to rid Grove Hall of drugs and lay the groundwork for economic development. Don Muhammad often worked on these efforts from his storefront businesses, which included a dry cleaners and were among the oldest Black-owned businesses in the area, Randy Muhammad said.
“To transform this place, which represents what was a beacon of hope, we find it to be egregious and disrespectful,” he said.
But the applicants say they want to give the neighborhood access to the wealth the growing cannabis sector offers. South End-based entrepreneur James Finney joined with the cofounders of Rooted in Roxbury, a minority-owned retail cannabis company, to pitch the delivery business, called EnRoot, to the city this past spring. Roxbury couples Brian and Joanne Keith and Solmon and Rokeya Chowdhury founded Rooted in Roxbury in 2019.
They point out the state’s cannabis law has so far fallen short in its aim to help communities harmed by the “war on drugs.” Just 16 of the state’s 194 corporations that have opened up pot facilities are owned by equity and economic empowerment applicants, a category for candidates from communities that suffered disproportionately during the war on drugs.
“Communities like Dorchester and Roxbury are where people were locked up for having cannabis on them, using cannabis, or distributing cannabis,” said Brian Keith, a sales executive who unsuccessfully ran for District 7 city councilor in 2017. ”We also didn’t want them locked out of this emerging industry.”
Rokeya Chowdhury said that business owners with roots in the neighborhoods have a nuanced understanding of the community’s needs that larger cannabis corporations may not.
“People just expect to meet these corporate white guys, but they’re really surprised that we are young families, raising young children,” Chowdhury added. The Chowdhurys also own the Indian-Bangladeshi Shanti Restaurant chain, with eateries in Dorchester, Roslindale, and Cambridge, and the Dudley Cafe in Roxbury. “You don’t want Massachusetts’ cannabis industry to be flooded by corporations. It should be people like us as well.”
The courier service is Rooted in Roxbury’s latest pitch. Its attempt to open a cannabis store in Nubian Square was denied by the Boston Zoning Board of Appeal because of residents’ concerns about traffic, exposure of cannabis to youth, and luring people from the homeless encampment at Mass. and Cass. Rooted in Roxbury is also pursuing licenses for shops on Newbury Street and near Downtown Crossing.
It’s unclear how long the building had been vacant. Solmon Chowdhury bought the property from Don Muhammad’s son, Don Jr., for $400,000 in February 2021, according to county records.
If the Grove Hall license is approved, the applicants said, customers in Boston could order products from either EnRoot’s proposed Blue Hill Avenue warehouse or from another Boston cannabis business. Buyers wouldn’t be allowed at the Grove Hall location, so the storefront would not have any in-person shoppers coming in and out, they said.
Other prominent Black clerics, though, aren’t comforted by such reassurances, including the Rev. Gregory Groover of Charles Street AME Church, Imam Taalib Mahdee of Masjid Al Qur’an, and the Rev. Miniard Culpepper of Pleasant Hill Missionary Baptist Church in Dorchester.
“If they want to deliver food, books, or computers, we’re all for it,” Culpepper said. “But we’re not for warehousing or delivering marijuana.”
Just up the street on the opposite corner is Pure Oasis, the first retail cannabis business owned by empowerment applicants to open in Massachusetts. At the time, Culpepper said the religious leaders did not get a “heads up” about Pure Oasis coming to the neighborhood until after it had been approved.
Pure Oasis draws cannabis customers from near and far. Co-owner Kobie Evans said that although the equity applicant initiative has opened the industry up to more people of color, it has also caused businesses to end up “on top of each other.”
“We’d like to see more of those businesses being spread out throughout the city, and not so much a concentration of businesses right on Blue Hill Avenue,“ Evans said. “But we support as many people getting into the industry as possible.”
City zoning laws require a half-mile buffer between cannabis businesses. If a business proposal is within the range, such as with EnRoot, however, applicants can seek a variance, or exception, with the Zoning Board of Appeal.
EnRoot’s owners held a required community meeting on their proposal in late October. The three-hour virtual meeting drew comments from dozens of people, including Yvette Muhammad, the daughter of Don Muhammad, who is now retired from public life.
The Nation, a Black nationalist religious and political organization, sees drugs as the oppressive tools of a racist white establishment, and has fought the illegal drug trade in neighborhoods across the country to help empower Black people.
The Nation has drawn sharp criticism and condemnation for its antisemitic and antigay teachings and rhetoric. Though Minister Don Muhammad was closely allied with one of the organization’s most controversial figures, his predecessor in Boston, Louis Farrakhan, Muhammad also built relationships across race and class lines to fight street crime and promote Black economic empowerment.
The businesses the Muhammads operated were lively community gathering spots, Yvette Muhammad recalled; Nova Sheen offered dry-cleaning and flooring services. And his wife, Shirley Muhammad, ran Nu Life, which provided iridology and other alternative medicines to customers.
As the co-owners presented their business model at the community meeting, Yvette said, she felt like “someone stabbed her in the chest.”
Yvette Muhammad, now 66, recalled learning to count change there as a child, and meeting community leaders in her parents’ business. “My parents worked there every day, and they employed people from the community.’'
EnRoot’s co-owners said they, too, would provide good jobs to local people of color.
“As people of color, we can now be owners, operators, investors, employees — not just consumers,” Brian Keith said. “We need to think bigger.”
Ed Gaskin, executive director of Greater Grove Hall Main Streets, said he “doesn’t oppose” the proposal and hopes EnRoot would fulfill its promises of contributing to the community.
“We’re interested in any commercial activity,” Gaskin said. “I would rather have something in there than have a vacant building.”
But others have voiced concerns about traffic, crime, and health.
“It’s not a good location for courier services,” said Michael Kozu, co-director of Grove Hall’s Project R.I.G.H.T., a nonprofit focused on neighborhood development. “We’ve had a number of pedestrians hit in the area, and they’ll create more accidents.”
The applicants say EnRoot would have on-site parking for three electric delivery vehicles and five spaces for employees. In addition, EnRoot has hired a third party to complete a traffic impact analysis in the coming weeks, Brian Keith said.
The proposal needs approval from the Boston Cannabis Board and a variance from the Zoning Board of Appeal, as well as approval from the state’s Cannabis Control Commission.
Former acting mayor Kim Janey, who returned to her District 7 city councilor seat at the end of her term, could not be reached for comment, but Brian Keith said her office submitted a letter of non-opposition to regulators.
Wu’s office would not say if the new mayor supports or opposes the proposal, nor did Wu offer a clear position when asked about the project Monday. However, Wu said the city should stop making “one-off” decisions that pit communities, or parts of one community, against one another.
“We need a comprehensive, proactive approach to planning that really looks at all the different priorities our communities have,” Wu said. “These two situations shouldn’t be at odds.”
Tiana Woodard is a Report for America corps member covering Black neighborhoods. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @tianarochon.