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Mayor Morse wants more marijuana

Leaves of a marijuana plant inside Ultra Health's cultivation greenhouse in Bernalillo, New Mexico, in April.Susan Montoya Bryan/Associated Press/File/Associated Press
Back in 2012, voters in the old mill city of Holyoke elected a 22-year-old progressive, Alex Morse, as mayor. Now in his third term, Morse says he’s overseeing a renaissance of the once-faded city, with new businesses and artists setting up in its long-blighted downtown.

But Holyoke’s poverty rate remains higher than the state average, and the city center is still pocked with dormant mills, warehouses, and canals.

That, Morse believes, is where marijuana comes in. He was among a handful of elected officials to back the 2016 ballot measure legalizing marijuana, saying he envisioned those industrial buildings filled with marijuana plants, bringing much-needed jobs and investment.

Today that vision is on its way to becoming reality. GTI, a large national cultivation firm, recently completed an $8 million renovation of an old paper mill, and will soon be producing up to 200 pounds of marijuana a week. And a number of recreational pot shops and cultivators have signed agreements to open in the city. Morse boasts Holyoke is among the friendliest communities to the cannabis industry in Massachusetts — in stark contrast to the many municipalities that have banned or placed moratoriums on recreational marijuana firms.

“We have cheap electricity, abundant water, and vacant space,” Morse said. “We’re the ideal city for this industry. We’ve been able to take advantage of other cities’ and towns’ closed-mindedness.”


Now, Morse wants Holyoke to take what he sees as a logical next step: allowing so-called “social consumption” venues, licnesed busineses where people can gather together to consume pot.

State regulators are considering creating two categories of these businesses: lounges where patrons can buy and smoke marijuana, but not take it home, known as “pot bars;” and “mixed-use” licenses, for businesses such as yoga studios that want to offer on-site pot as an add-on.

Morse sees two big positives here. The first is simple: attracting more consumers to the Holyoke’s commercial district.

“Just like we promote nightlife with liquor licenses, we want to leverage on-site consumption to bring people back to the downtown,” Morse said. “Whether it be cannabis cafes or yoga studio, these businesses will get people to actually spend time in the [downtown] innovation district. We see it as a tourism issue. And we still have a lot of vacant space along the canals.”


The other major upside, according to Morse, is that these businesses will make it easier for Holyoke locals to get into the marijuana business — opening a small pot lounge is less costly than and building out a big growing or manufacturing facility that requires expensive machinery.

“We have a big focus on entrepreneurship and helping individuals start small businesses in Holyoke,” Morse explained. “On-site consumption is much more accessible to someone who doesn’t have millions of dollars.”

Unfortunately for Morse, bringing social consumption venues to his city will take some doing.

In February, following pushback from Gov. Charlie Baker and other elected officials who feared the licenses presented public safety risks, the Cannabis Control Commission elected to delay a decision on whether to authorize social consumption venues until this fall. If the five commissioners vote in October to go ahead, businesses could open as soon as February, 2019. (So-called equity applicants would have the first bite.)

Another major obstacle: the 2016 legalization ballot question made a muddle of the process for cities and towns to allow social consumption.

The intention of legalization proponents was to ban social consumption by default and allow municipalities to opt-in through a community-wide vote on the issue during a statewide election. However, the language in the initiative doesn’t square neatly with Massachusetts law, leaving it unclear how, exactly, local officials are supposed to set up such a vote. A fix to the language is pending in the Legislature, but appears stalled.


Frustrated by the lack of clarity, Morse said the City Council on Tuesday will consider asking the state legislature to explicitly authorize social consumption businesses in Holyoke in particular.

“It’s a bit frustrating,” Morse said. “Here you have a city that wants to embrace the marijuana industry wholeheartedly, and we have to go out of our way and do an election and jump over all these hurdles. We just want clear answers.”

Morse said he was dismayed by the commission’s decision to delay social consumption licenses, arguing that people are already using marijuana socially in private, unregulated settings and that alcohol presents a far greater danger to public safety.

“Only in a legalized system can we fully address the negative aspects of marijuana use; this way, it’s safe, it’s monitored,” Morse said. “But the truth is, there are much more dangerous substances at the local CVS and the local bar than you’ll ever find at a cannabis cafe. Once we get a cafe and it becomes a part of the fabric of our economy downtown, people will see that it’s a destination, not a negative to the community.”

I wondered, would Morse be a patron of such a cafe? He paused.

“Most likely,” he said. “I go to a local bar, so I’d have no problem going to a local cannabis cafe. When it opens I’ll be there for the first ‘toast,’ or whatever you call it.”


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