Core Empowerment doesn’t want to open just another recreational marijuana shop.
The company, which secured approval last month from the Boston Zoning Board of Appeals, wants its Jamaica Plain dispensary to be a place that sparks conversation in the community and educates customers about the history of marijuana prohibition.
The dispensary will have what most dispensaries have: a wide variety of products on the menu and plenty of employees to help marijuana-buying rookies through the process.
But Core Empowerment will also have something that most dispensaries don’t: a social justice museum that highlights the effects of marijuana prohibition on the community.
“We really want to do something new and unique here that memorializes what actually happened,” said April Arrasate, Core Empowerment’s CEO and a veteran of the medical marijuana industry in Connecticut.
“We really want people to understand the costs that we paid for the drug war and help people maybe not make the same mistakes going forward and recognize the disproportionate impacts that it had on the minority communities,” said Arrasate, who co-founded the Connecticut dispensary Curaleaf in 2013, and founded the medical marijuana committee of the Connecticut Bar Association one year later.
Core Empowerment’s social justice museum will be built alongside its retail dispensary, both of which will be in the basement level of 401A Centre St. in Hyde Square, a space of more than 6,000 square feet.
The curation of the museum is still in its early phases, but Arrasate said the museum will focus on local history, with national and international history intertwined.
Arrasate hopes it creates an environment that pulls “black market operators into the light” and helps everyone be “a part of this movement.”
“Our challenge and what I’m really excited about now is we want a place where someone . . . who is square, worried about the stigma, and someone who has been using cannabis in the black market for their whole lives, can feel comfortable, can engage,” Arrasate said. “It’s a space where both of those ends of the spectrum can come together and communicate.”
Tomas Gonzalez, the company’s COO and a Boston native, said he also hopes it’s a source of information for people visiting the store.
“We really do want to have a part in here that sends a message on the history of cannabis prohibition on people of color,” he said. “We want people to actually learn.”
Before helping launch Core Empowerment, Gonzalez had his own lengthy career in city government, social justice activism, and neighborhood relations.
He’s held multiple positions for the City of Boston, including, most recently, deputy director of the mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Services. He also served briefly as the director of community outreach at Boston University, and spent time as a union organizer and activist for raising the minimum wage. When his interest in the recreational marijuana industry was piqued in 2017, a mutual friend connected him to Arrasate.
Born in South Boston and raised in Egleston Square, Gonzalez knew if he was going to open a marijuana facility anywhere, it had to be in the neighborhood he called home.
“If you were going to pick a neighborhood, anywhere in the City of Boston, this neighborhood needs it,” Gonzalez said. “This neighborhood needed a little boost. This is going to be an engine for this neighborhood.”
Core Empowerment is co-owned and operated by Arrasate; Gonzalez; Peri Higgins, the president of management consulting firm Evolve Advisors who is serving as the company’s CFO; and Derric Small, a Boston attorney who is the company’s legal counsel.
Core Empowerment isn’t a certified economic empowerment applicant by the state, but Arrasate said their mission is to bring women and under-represented minorities into the cannabis industry.
Gonzalez said he hopes to send a message to his community that “local folks like me can actually do this.”
“Some first-generation Puerto Rican kid from Egleston Square can actually create a business that’s going to stimulate the local economy, that’s going to employ people, that’s going to talk about the history of cannabis, that’s going to try to talk about the injustices . . . and open the conversation in a different way,” he said.
Core Empowerment is moving into the former home of Bella Luna & The Milky Way, which merged and moved to Amory Street in 2009 when rent skyrocketed. The space has been empty since.
Kathie Mainzer, who opened the Bella Luna with three colleagues in the ’90s, is also on Core Empowerment’s team — as a community relations consultant. She said she was thrilled to see a business that “really want[s] to be part of the fabric of the neighborhood.”
“I really believed in this project and this team and that this neighborhood needed a business like this,” she said.
Arrasate said when Core Empowerment was looking for a space, they didn’t want to “strong-arm an area.” They wanted a place where they would be welcomed — and that’s exactly what they’ve felt in Hyde Square.
“It used to be a gathering place,” Arrasate said, “and we want it to be again.”