A small company that failed to win one of Amesbury’s two available marijuana store licenses is suing the city, alleging the mayor maliciously changed the application process to block it from proceeding.
CKR Natural Solutions, cofounded by local business owner Kirby Mastrangelo, said in a complaint filed last month in Essex County Superior Court that Amesbury Mayor Ken Gray told the company it needed a special permit from the city’s planning board — a requirement he did not apply to an earlier applicant nor a subsequent one that ultimately was granted a retail marijuana license.
Without the special permit, the company said, Gray would not negotiate a host community agreement that would have allowed CKR to apply for a state license and eventually open.
CKR also said Gray and other officials pressured the business to commit to paying for the repaving and expansion of a busy rotary near its proposed location, even though CKR had offered other solutions for reducing its impact on traffic.
Mastrangelo, who co-owns a small health shop called Hempire in downtown Amesbury, said her venture was ultimately forced to abandon the drawn-out process after spending thousands of dollars to rent the space where she hoped to open a marijuana store.
“They wanted us to pay for the rotary prior to even getting the planning board’s approval or a [host community agreement] from the mayor,” she said in an interview. “I was really taken aback. I realized they could run me out of time and money and still not give approval. The only way to find out was to spend millions, which we didn’t have. We feel it was really unfair.”
In a brief interview, Gray declined to comment on the substance of the lawsuit, saying only his office would “defend the city’s interests vigorously.”
However, he suggested that as mayor, he has the authority to change the process for marijuana applicants depending on their circumstances and proposed locations.
“There are a lot of variables involved,” he said. “The process is, we negotiate.”
The lawsuit by CKR is the latest expression of long-running frustrations among small marijuana companies in their dealings with municipalities. The small enterprises say cities and towns are handing the keys of the industry to large corporate players by making unreasonable financial demands of applicants, implementing overly restrictive zoning schemes for cannabis facilities, and failing to implement policies prioritizing firms run by local residents and members of disenfranchised communities.
A recent investigation by the Globe Spotlight Team found a number of seemingly local applicants in reality have close ties to large, multistate marijuana companies that are pushing the limits of a Massachusetts law limiting the number of stores they can control.
In her lawsuit, Mastrangelo also accused Amesbury of failing to recognize CKR’s status as a state-certified “economic empowerment” applicant. The designation by the state’s Cannabis Control Commission grants faster state licensure to companies that are owned by or would benefit members of communities hurt disproportionately by the enforcement of drug laws.
While the status confers no official advantage at the municipal level, some cities have given priority to such applicants.
“The entire thing was set up against us,” she said. “Being a small applicant and trying to make your way with companies stacking millions against you is intimidating enough, but [Amesbury] basically arbitrarily changed the process for us and not any other applicant. We felt so lost.”
At the site of Hempire, Mastrangelo previously ran another business, Humble Bumble; it closed last year after her then-business partner was charged with allegedly selling marijuana under the table.