Would adding more retail pot shops in Taunton saturate the market or bring in millions?

Susannah Sudborough

| The Taunton Daily Gazette

TAUNTON — With three retail marijuana applicants’ fates hanging in the balance and just one retail marijuana license left, Taunton City Council is undecided on whether or not they should raise the number of licenses.

In the running for the last license are Mass Medicum at 300 Revolutionary Drive, Tree Market Taunton at 9 Cape Road and Bask Inc. at 400 Winthrop St.

Bask Inc. is back in the running for the last license after recently successfully appealing the City Council’s denial of a special permit in 2019.

The Council is divided on whether or not to increase the number of licenses, with councilors Chris Coute, David Pottier and Barry Sanders seemingly most in favor of an increase and councilors Phillip Duarte, Deborah Carr and Jeff Postell the most hesitant — for different reasons.

At a council-as-a-whole subcommittee meeting on Jan. 19, Coute made his case for increasing the number of licenses, citing the potential revenue each new retail marijuana shop could bring in to the city.

“I think this is an opportunity for the city of Taunton to bring in much needed revenue to help us bridge the gap with closing the landfill,” he said, referencing the closing of the city’s landfill last year which turned trash collection from a revenue boon to a sinkhole.

“Some cities and towns have brought in close to $2 million yearly already,” he said. “I did a little research…I discovered Fall River projects $1.9 million in revenue from marijuana sales; Boston $2.5 million; Worcester $1.7 million; Northampton —which only currently has three dispensaries open — $1.6 million. So significant revenue is available here.”

Coute also pointed out that many applicants who are given marijuana licenses never open their shop, and said he is concerned that not increasing the amount of licenses could shut out qualified applicants.

Duarte challenged this point with a concern that over-saturating the city with shops could impede the ability of shops who have already been awarded licenses to succeed while not increasing revenue for the city. He said it is currently unclear at what number of marijuana shops the city will see diminishing returns.

“I would think it best that we at least get a few of these shops up and running and see what the market is before we consider increasing the licenses, especially since we haven’t opened any yet,” Duarte said.

Pottier countered Duarte’s concern by pointing out that the five marijuana licenses the Council has allowed in the city is the state’s minimum, and argued that the state probably considered such a problem and would not have set a minimum above which a city would oversaturate the market.

But Carr said perhaps some councilors were so preoccupied with the potential revenue gains from marijuana shops that they haven’t considered the potential social costs of having more marijuana in the city.

She said she is concerned with things like the cost to train police officers to deal with drug offenses, the cost to courts when people are caught driving high and the increased access to marijuana children in the city could have.

Sanders countered Carr’s point by arguing that the marijuana industry will likely have a similar effect on citizens as the alcohol industry.

“People like to go to the liquor store. Do some people occasionally pick up a beer and a couple of nips and toss them back on the way home and behave irresponsibly? Yep. And it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if somebody showed up at a recreational marijuana shop, grabbed a few gummies and popped one on the way home. That would be irresponsible,” he said.

“But most people who go to the liquor store pick up their six pack and take it home and enjoy it over a period of time in a very responsible way. And I believe, ultimately, that’s what happens with most users of recreational cannabis.”

Councilor Gerald Croteau and Assistant City Solicitor Mark Gould both spoke in favor of capping the number of host-community agreements — the first step in the retail marijuana licensing process — to the number of licenses available in the future.

They and other councilors said they were concerned for businesses who invest a lot of time and money in the application process having it then wasted when they cannot receive a license.

Ultimately, the discussion ended with a vote to send the idea of increasing the number of licenses, as well as capping the number of host-community agreements, to the ordinance committee, which consists of Coute, Croteau and Carr.

They also asked for a recommendation on these matters from the city’s law department, the city planner and the police chief.

The Council discussed a related matter during the ordinance subcommittee meeting. Kyra Fernandez, a social equity applicant and owner of HTC Trinity — a retail marijuana shop that has already received a license — had previously proposed an ordinance similar to that of the city of Cambridge that allowed only social equity applicants to open in the city for two years.

Coute, Gould and others were in agreement that since four of the five licenses have already been given out, that it is too late for such an ordinance. However, Coute and others were in favor of doing more to help social equity applicants.

After discussing the possibility of a waiver of the $3,000 application fee, which did not gain traction, the subcommittee moved to get input from the city planner on the idea of creating a 1,000-foot buffer zone around the shops of social equity retail marijuana applicants where no one else can open a retail marijuana shop.

Later in the evening when the public was given a chance to weigh in, the Council received many calls about the marijuana licenses.

One was from Willitts Mendonca, of the Greater Westville Neighborhood Association, who said he did not want to see the number of marijuana licenses increased for the time being.

“The areas where these locations can be situated are very limited to only certain thoroughfares — being County Street, Dean Street, Broadway and Winthrop Street — the highway business districts that the Council authorized it for,” he said.

“To increase it from five to eight, in my opinion, would be burdening one or two of those thoroughfares with more than one of these locations, which I feel is unfair. I think five is an adequate number.”

Another call came from Grant Smith Ellis, president of the Massachusetts Cannabis Reform Coalition, who argued in favor of the city’s doing more to help social equity applicants.

“While yes, there is priority for equity applicants on the state level, that priority is only really effective if those applicants can get through the local process,” he said. “The biggest barriers to getting to a local process is, one, a lack of expedited review on the local level for those equity applicants, and two, a lack of access to funding. So I understand that you aren’t comfortable with a two-year priority period, but I would strongly urge you to consider doing something like prioritizing equity applicants if licenses come up in the future and thinking about using some of your local cannabis excise tax to fund equity applicants.”

Lastly, Phil Smith, social equity applicant owner of Freshly Baked — a Taunton cannabis delivery company — called in to remind the councilors that there are other types of marijuana licenses the city can issue that will bring in revenue and are not so controversial.

“I hear a lot of talk about retail and changing the ordinance, but I don’t hear a lot of talk about recruiting the other types of licenses like manufacturing, like cultivation,” he said.

“Manufacturing is a license that has no burden to the city. No one would ever know it was there and could generate probably the same amount of revenue that a retailer would get. And Taunton has tons of locations that these businesses could

go into that can help revitalize the city. So I think when you’re going about these conversations, please keep in mind that there are other types of licenses that can generate tons of money for the city without all the hubbub.”

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