Holyoke’s mayor isn’t afraid of pot

Alex Morse sees potential for urban farming in his old city’s mills

Photographs by Mark Morelli 

OUTSIDE HOLYOKE CITY HALL is a stone fountain that once gurgled with water, offering a more wholesome substitute for alcohol to “a thirsty humanity,” as the inscription reads. Erected in 1901, the monument was one of several put up by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union around the country as part of a campaign that would help usher in Prohibition.

One suspects those upstanding ladies would be none too pleased by recent developments in Holyoke, where city officials are not just cheering the end of another form of prohibition—on marijuana—but embracing it as a way to revive the city’s flagging fortunes.

Since Massachusetts voters approved the legal sale of recreational marijuana, officials in a number of cities and towns have been wringing their hands over the prospect of quaint downtowns being overrun by stumbling stoners. Numerous communities have passed or are considering moratoriums on pot shops, at least until the regulations that will govern the industry are hammered out by the Legislature, whose members themselves tend to be more wary of pot than the public at large. Meanwhile, there are early indications that the Trump administration won’t be nearly as chill about enforcing the federal prohibition on pot as former President Barack Obama had been.

But Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse —the driving force behind the city’s marijuana-friendly approach—is undaunted.

Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse

Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse: We’re open for business.

“In a climate where it seems many city and towns are reluctant to embrace the industry and some are even outwardly hostile to the industry, I think it’s important to distinguish our city as a place that, if people want to have that conversation, we want to have that conversation,” Morse says.

And it’s not just talk. In the near future, GTI, a national medical marijuana company, is hoping to begin work on a cultivation facility and nearby dispensary that will be located along a canal in the heart of the city’s downtown art and technology district. The site is a far cry from the drab outlying buildings where most of the state’s existing dispensaries can be found.

GTI is not the only cannabis-oriented business city officials are talking to. Morse says the city has been “inundated” with interest since his pro-pot stance was publicized late last year. He points to the city’s natural advantages, in particular 1.5 million square feet of vacant mill space, a legacy of the Paper City’s onetime status as the world’s foremost supplier of paper products. And the city has some of the cheapest and greenest power in the state, thanks to the Holyoke Dam and canal system—an important consideration when running a warehouse full of grow lights all hours of the day.

But marijuana is not just any industry, and Holyoke is not just any city. It’s racked by poverty—nearly 30 percent of the population lives below the poverty level—and it’s long been dogged by high crime rates and a struggling school system, which is currently in state receivership.

Other immigrant-heavy, economically challenged Gateway Cities, such as Lawrence and New Bedford, have viewed the marijuana industry, including medical dispensaries, warily. The last thing those cities need, the prevailing attitude among officials seems to be, are more outlets for psychoactive substances.

Not everyone in Holyoke is sold on the idea, either. But for Morse, his city’s challenges are all the more reason to throw open the door to an innovative if controversial industry that can bring jobs and revenue.

PITCHING POT

Pete Kadens, the chief executive of GTI, and a colleague click through a series of slides detailing, among other things, the company’s rigid security protocols and the science behind how cannabis helps sufferers of Parkinson’s and other ailments.

Kadens is speaking in the auditorium of Holyoke’s Kelly Elementary School, where about 50 residents, hunched over kid-sized tables, have turned out on a March evening to learn more about GTI’s plans.

It is a polished presentation, one clearly made before by the company, which operates in Illinois, Maryland, and Nevada. Early into the spiel, Kadens pauses for questions.

Will medical marijuana be covered by insurance, one man asks skeptically. “You have people here who can’t afford a loaf of bread,” he says. The answer was no; medical marijuana is strictly an out-of-pocket expense.

“A school?” another person asks incredulously. “You’re talking about this in a school?” More to the point, he says, GTI’s proposed cultivation site is just around the corner from the school. (It’s about 700 feet away.)

The would-be grow facility is in the city’s Flats neighborhood. It’s a former industrial area that flanks the Connecticut River, and is among the most impoverished parts of the city, with a population that is predominantly Hispanic.

Israel Rivera, a young bearded guy sporting tattoos and a baseball cap, stands up and explains that he’s a felon, that he has served time for crimes relating to marijuana and other drugs.

“A lot of people are suffering because of these laws,” says Rivera. “Ultimately the question for me is what’s this going to do for the community, the community of the Flats, the community I was raised in.”

These concerns—that GTI’s arrival in Holyoke was another case of an unsavory business being foisted on a vulnerable community, not unlike package stores and pawn shops—aren’t unfounded.

In California, home to the country’s first and longest-running medical marijuana program, dispensaries are inordinately located in areas that tend to be poorer and more Hispanic, and have higher concentrations of liquor stores and easy highway access, according to a 2015 study by University of California, Los Angeles. At the same time, the demographics of medical marijuana users tend to skew older and whiter than the general population, according to a study by UC Santa Cruz.

Since Colorado legalized the sale of recreational marijuana, pot shops have sprung up disproportionately in lower-income neighborhoods of Denver, an analysis last year by the Denver Post found. The phenomenon was attributed in large part to the fact that industrial areas with pot-friendly zoning tend to be located in or near low-income areas. Such neighborhoods also offer cheaper rent and may not put up the same fuss as wealthier parts of town.

Zoning helps explain why GTI’s facilities in Holyoke have been sited in the Flats; that’s also where much of the city’s general industrial zone—where medical marijuana businesses are a permitted use—is located.

Holyoke’s economic development director says empty mills meet the special requirements for urban farming.

Holyoke’s economic development director says empty mills meet the special requirements for urban farming.

Kadens appeared to be caught off guard by the bluntness of some of the questions at the March meeting. But he quickly gained his footing. He’s more comfortable discussing such issues than your typical executive. A serial entrepreneur who founded one of the largest solar companies in the country, Kadens has been an outspoken critic of US drug policy and he has pushed to bring social justice to the marijuana industry, even delivering a TED talk on the subject.

Kadens told the crowd that GTI would be hiring “hyper-provincially” in the neighborhood to fill jobs at the cultivation facility and the dispensary. GTI would provide thousands of dollars to neighborhood organizations annually. (The facilities will employ about 50 people, in positions ranging from trimmers and packagers making $14 to $18 an hour to chemists and other professional managers with six-figure salaries.)

“Let me tell you why we came to Holyoke,” Kadens said. “Because this is a city where we can make a difference. It is a fact that the war on drugs and the war on marijuana has disproportionately affected communities of color. People like yourselves deserve the right to profit from this. You deserve the right to be employed by this industry—that’s why we came to Holyoke.”

HOLYOKE’S BUSINESS

No one would ever mistake Alex Morse for a pothead. He’s clean-cut and speaks precisely, seemingly in fully-formed paragraphs. The Holyoke native graduated from Brown University and promptly returned home to run for mayor in 2011, beating a political veteran and becoming, at age 22, the youngest mayor in the city’s history. Since then, he’s distinguished himself by his progressive politics—he recently vowed to uphold the city’s status as a sanctuary city —and a push to revitalize the downtown. His support for a local marijuana industry fits squarely within that agenda.

“We see it as one part of an overall economic development strategy to revitalize the center city,” Morse says. “There’s been all these fears that people are going to be smoking on the street, but the law is very clear: there’s no public consumption. It’s a very tight law.”

So far, the City Council in Holyoke, where about 57 percent of voters supported the marijuana legalization question, has not put up much resistance to Morse’s marijuana push, although two councilors have proposed a moratorium on pot shops until the end of 2018. The special permit for GTI’s cultivation facility was still in committee in late March. Time will tell if opposition grows as more residents learn about the plans.

Morse’s support for the pot industry could help breathe hipness into the city’s Innovation District, the area along its historic canals that has become home to a growing number of tech startups and arts groups. The city also recently marked the opening of a new downtown passenger rail station that reconnects the city to Amtrak’s Vermonter line, which runs from Washington, DC, to the Canadian border. Morse doesn’t shy away from the potential for marijuana tourism, a phenomenon that’s been well documented in Colorado. Given the city’s proximity to Connecticut, New York, and Vermont, it’s not a far-fetched proposition.

GTI’s dispensary will be located along Holyoke’s Canalwalk near Gateway City Arts, a sprawling space that features a music and performance stage, beer garden and restaurant, and ceramic studios. Depending on how things shake out with the marijuana law, the dispensary could one day become a retail shop or even a pot cafe,
à la Amsterdam.

"I think it’s going to be good for us from a business perspective,” says Lori Divine, who with Vitek Kruta owns Gateway City Arts.

“I think it’s going to be good for us from a business perspective,” says Lori Divine, who with Vitek Kruta owns Gateway City Arts.

That prospect doesn’t worry Lori Divine, a co-owner of Gateway City Arts, in the least. “For us it’ll be good. We have a restaurant and music, so I think that’s a very nice combination,” she says with a laugh. “I think it’s going to be good for us from a business perspective. It will be terrific for the city.”

Marcos Marrero, Holyoke’s economic development director, sees marijuana cultivation as a kind of economic gateway to pharmaceutical research and other forms of “urban farming.”

“The mills we have here, they’re older mills. They’re not particularly well-suited for new types of manufacturing. But they meet the spatial requirements for urban farming,” Marrero says. “The thing with marijuana is it’s the best crop now in terms of payment at this moment.”

But the market could change. In Newark, New Jersey, for example, a “vertical farm,” in which climate-control technology is used to grow crops in stacked rows inside buildings, now produces 2 million pounds of fresh salad greens a year.

“You put the controversy about the type of crop aside, and it’s just another crop,” Marrero says about the city’s interest in becoming the marijuana mecca of the Pioneer Valley.

DOUBTS AND FEARS

If Holyoke leaders see marijuana simply as a promising economic opportunity, other Gateway Cities aren’t so agnostic about joining a blooming marijuana trade.

Lawrence, one of the state’s poorest cities, with a population that is more than 70 percent Hispanic, was one of the few communities in Massachusetts to vote against legalizing medical marijuana in 2012, and residents voted in November against legalization of recreational marijuana by one of the highest margins in the state.

In New Bedford, the idea that pot shops might contribute to the effort to revive its downtown is anathema to Mayor Jon Mitchell. “At the risk of generalizing, I believe that most of the people who voted in favor of legalization did so because they believe people should be able to smoke marijuana in the privacy of their own homes,” says Mitchell, a former federal prosecutor. “I think most of those people would agree that it doesn’t mean that marijuana retail operations should be allowed to set up right next to schools and churches.”

Methuen Mayor Stephen Zanni wants to hold a referendum in the city, where voters narrowly rejected Question 4, to limit or ban retail pot shops—the only way, according to the law in its current form, for communities to impose such blanket restrictions. “As far as Massachusetts goes, I’m very conservative,” says Zanni. “And the federal government doesn’t approve it yet either,” he adds, referring to the uncertainties about enforcement of federal laws against marijuana.

Kadens seems to view the persistent stigma around marijuana as a kind of occupational hazard, something that no amount of PowerPoint presentations and demonstrations of good corporate citizenship can completely dispel.

He tells of one mayor who, when informed that marijuana did indeed give people “the munchies”—appetite stimulation is the term GTI prefers—asked, “Then why are Cheech and Chong so skinny?”

“There are still people living in the days of Reefer Madness,” Kadens says. “Some places we have a lot of work to do because people are starting in the 1960s. That’s their context for cannabis.”

Certainly one of the most persistent beliefs held by marijuana detractors is that it’s a “gateway” to harder drugs such as heroin and other opioids—no minor concern in a region that has been devastated by overdoses and other problems associated with addiction. But while research has shown that marijuana use might correlate with the use of drugs such as heroin, it has yet to offer firm support for the gateway theory.

Kadens and other supporters of marijuana legalization, in fact, point to respected studies that have shown that greater access to pot corresponds to lower opiate use. A 2014 study in the Journal of American Medical Association found that “medical cannabis laws are associated with significantly lower state-level opioid overdose mortality rates.” A 2016 study published in the American Journal of Public Health found, by examining autopsy data from car crash victims, that opioids were detected less often in people who lived in states with medical marijuana laws.

UNCERTAIN FUTURE 

Any grand visions of Holyoke becoming a center for the cannabis industry are clouded by the ongoing machinations on Beacon Hill around the marijuana law. Having already pushed back the deadline to finalize regulations for the retail sale of pot by six months, the Legislature could very well make other significant changes to the law or at least gum up the works. It’s not lost on pot supporters that five years after voters approved medical marijuana, there are only 10 licensed dispensaries in the state, with more than 200 applications pending.

Holyoke has some of the cheapest and cleanest power in the state, an important consideration when running a warehouse full of grow lights all hours of the day.

Holyoke has some of the cheapest and cleanest power in the state, an important consideration when running a warehouse full of grow lights all hours of the day.

Municipalities are at the center of the lobbying scrum, pushing for changes to the law that would give them more power to restrict the number of local pot shops or ban them altogether.

“We’re not hearing any community that says that the ballot question shouldn’t be implemented, because it was voted for,” says Geoffrey Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association. “But we do believe it’s important to clarify the law so there won’t be excess litigation and all sorts of question marks as the law unfolds over months and years.”

With the Legislature poised to amend the law and the Trump administration signaling it may take a harder line toward marijuana, companies such as GTI are treading cautiously, while continuing to push to open medical dispensaries. It’s a sound strategy considering that the law, as written, gives “applicants with the most experience operating medical marijuana treatment centers” first dibs on recreational licenses.

“I’m asked all the time if we’re going to go recreational,” Kadens says. “My response is always the same. We’re going to follow the law and we’re going to work in partnership with the community and the city to digest the law and assess how we’re going to go forward. There’s nothing worse than to be in a community that doesn’t want you there.”

At the same time, Kadens makes it clear that the scale of GTI’s operation in Holyoke will depend on the future of recreational pot; he says the number of jobs at its facilities could more than double if the recreational market opens up.

Meet the Author
In the end, those jobs may serve as one of the more compelling arguments for welcoming the pot industry to Holyoke. It’s certainly one of the main things that appeals to Jose Bou, the proprietor of Salsarengue, a bar, restaurant, and club that is a gathering spot for the city’s large Puerto Rican community. It’s a festive place that stands out in a downtown pocked with vacant storefronts, liquor stores, and check-cashing shops, an area where pot smoke isn’t an uncommon aroma.

“When you’re talking about controlling marijuana, it’s a great thing,” Bou says. “If you have someone selling alcohol from a basement and there’s no responsibility beyond that, I have a problem. But when there’s a law that controls it, I’m in favor of it. I think with all these empty buildings, we should do something with them rather than letting them rot and collapse.”

  • Dreamboat Annie

    Morse is depending on pot because he is inadequate at balancing a budget. His shortfall with the fire department caused death and destruction. He should be jailed!

    • casmatt99

      Is it really his fault though that the city has been economically depressed for decades now?

      He’s trying to right the ship by whatever means are available to him and the city. Can you specify which law he has broken exactly, because in this country you can’t be jailed without being charged with a crime.