For pot shop opponents, Leicester’s traffic nightmare is a gift
Images of cars lined up, bumper to bumper, flashed across the screen — a traffic hell.
When one of the state’s first marijuana stores opened last month in Leicester, a tiny town in Central Massachusetts, Greg Bivona, 72, watched the news from his vacation condo in Florida. He had already planned to fly home to Brewster to vote against pot stores because he felt they would worsen traffic. Now, he had proof.
“I do truly not want to see the town that I love . . . turn into something that is not what I envisioned Brewster would be,” Bivona told about 1,200 residents at a Dec. 3 Special Town Meeting. “I don’t want to see it look like Leicester, with traffic, ridiculous traffic.”
The highly publicized transportation snarls have reverberated across the state, changing the marijuana debate in places such as Roslindale, East Boston, Lowell, and Cape Cod.
Residents, many of whom weeks ago had never heard of Leicester, now know one thing: They don’t want to become like it.
The irony, marijuana advocates say, is that the problems were caused by the scarcity of stores — and now opponents are using those problems to argue for more scarcity.
Proponents point to the no-drama opening Saturday of Alternative Therapies Group in Salem as proof that Leicester’s problems are unlikely to play out elsewhere. The cannabis store provided shuttle buses from overflow parking lots and required customers to make appointments online.
And Leicester leaders say their streets have cleared. Cultivate, the pot shop there, had a line of about 25 people waiting on foot Tuesday, said Police Chief Jim Hurley, but the need for officers to be stationed there at all times dropped off a week ago. He chalked it up to the store adding more parking and the demand dropping as other stores elsewhere received approvals to open.
“The novelty is wearing off,” Hurley said, adding that Leicester’s situation was unique because its opening marked the end of marijuana prohibition in the Eastern United States, and it was closer to the state’s more populated areas. Plus it was Thanksgiving, the busiest travel week of the year, he said, adding, “I refer to that, really, as the perfect storm.”
On the eve of a Dec. 5 community meeting in Roslindale to discuss a proposed marijuana store, someone taped a copy of a Globe article about Leicester’s woes to a street pole near the planned site. The Nov. 27 article’s headline jumped out: “Neighbors say pot shop brings misery to town.”
The meeting was dominated by concerns about Roslindale reliving Leicester’s traffic nightmare, said Mitch Rosenfield, a co-owner of the proposed store. He said he argued that customers coming to his business would have plenty of parking and public transit options, unlike in Leicester. Also, he added, his shop would not open for a year, by which time many other shops in the Boston area would be running.
“I had satellite maps set up showing people how the two locations couldn’t be more different,” Rosenfield said. “Leicester was a disaster waiting to happen.”
After seeing the gridlock in Leicester, Lowell officials e-mailed the 8 to 10 businesses seeking permission to open pot stores there and asked for their plans to reduce traffic and parking issues. The firms would have had to provide such plans at a later stage in the process anyway, but city leaders required the plans to be submitted earlier, said Lowell City Manager Eileen Donoghue.
“Certainly, Leicester had a significant traffic impact,” Donoghue said. “It’s a serious issue that should be looked at sooner than later.”
Some marijuana consumers have blamed state regulators at the Cannabis Control Commission, saying that if the commission approved more stores to open, demand would be spread more evenly and traffic would be alleviated. A spokeswoman declined to comment Tuesday, but the commission has previously said that it processes applications in the order in which they are received after being approved locally. The commission has also said it is moving as quickly as possible to check businesses for compliance with regulations and allow them to open.
Not all towns are looking at Leicester and freaking out, said Valerio Romano, an attorney who has talked to local government officials as he helps cannabis companies through the application process.
“I’ve had the opposite experience,” Romano said. “Since all these traffic reports have opened up, it’s like, ‘Oh, wow, they’re making that kind of money? Sweet!’ ”
Between the New England Treatment Access store in Northampton and Cultivate in Leicester, customers spent more than $7 million in less than three weeks. Recreational marijuana is taxed at 17 percent by the state, and 3 percent by cities and towns. Local governments can also collect 3 percent of a marijuana company’s revenue under so-called host-community agreements required to win a state license. The state has estimated it will collect nearly $216 million in taxes in the first two years of recreational sales.
Leicester’s town manager, David Genereux, said the windfall will make a difference in the coffers of his community, whose annual budget is $31 million. He said leaders plan to spend the money on items such as new police cars, fire trucks, ambulances, cardiac monitors, and equipment in schools.
“Except for a few bumps in the road, at the beginning, the experience is positive for residents, and will be positive even more so going forward,” Genereux said.
But on Cape Cod, those potential benefits did little to sway the more skeptical residents of Brewster, who voted by a margin of just 70 votes at a town meeting of 1,200 to ban marijuana stores earlier this month.
Traffic was a key factor, said William Henchy, a lawyer hired by opponents of a store proposed in town. Henchy argued that with many other Cape communities imposing bans on cannabis sales, Brewster would have been an “island” — attracting untenable levels of traffic during the busy summer tourism season.
Before the vote, Bivona, back from Florida, implored his fellow Brewster residents to bar the store. “I don’t care about the finance committee,” Bivona said. “I truly don’t want to see this town belittle itself because I believe in the future we will look down and say we rue the decision that we made to have retail marijuana in the town of Brewster.”