ATTLEBORO — The chief executive of the city’s first retail recreational marijuana shop is hoping a new lawsuit will force Gov. Charlie Baker to allow his business and others like it to open before financial disaster hits.
Nova Farms LLC, which was scheduled to start selling pot for the first time this month, is on the brink of closing even before it opens, CEO Derek Ross said Friday.
“We’re on life support,” he said. “We’ll be out of business in a month if we can’t open.”
Last month, Baker declared that recreational marijuana businesses are not “essential” and ordered them closed along with other nonessential businesses. It was part of the state’s effort to slow the spread of coronavirus, which as of Friday had killed 599 state residents, including eight in Attleboro, and had infected 20,974 Massachusetts residents.
Unlike other small businesses, retail adult-use marijuana shops don’t qualify for federal relief money because the sale of marijuana is illegal at the federal level, Ross said.
Nova Farms has only its own resources to cling to, and those are getting thin, he said.
“We’re hoping Gov. Baker will deem the cannabis business ‘essential’ sooner rather than later,” Ross said.
The suit was filed Wednesday by five retail shops, not including Nova Farms, in Suffolk Superior Court.
Ross and his partners have been working since 2017 to establish a marijuana business in the city.
His company, formerly known as Bristol County Wellness Center, originally intended to sell medical marijuana.
But when adult use marijuana businesses became legal, the company refocused on that and acquired all state and local permits it needed.
Nova Farms was cleared to open by the state’s Cannabis Control Commission on March 5.
At the time, Ross said the plan was to open the doors on April 1 after his store, located at 34 Extension St., was stocked and employees trained.
Then came March 23 when Baker ordered all nonessential businesses to close their doors by noon March 24. It was just one week before Nova Farms was expected to open its doors.
It was a blow for Ross and his partners as well as his newly trained employees, many of whom had left other jobs to work for Nova Farms.
“It was really bad timing for us,” Ross said. “It hurt us bad. It’s been crippling.”
He said Nova Farms is still paying its managers, but other employees have been laid off and are applying for unemployment benefits from the state.
The people hurting the most are 35 new employees who hadn’t started their jobs and don’t qualify for unemployment, Ross said.
“They’re in a really hard situation,” he said.
Nova Farms has about 90 employees.
The rolls were expected to grow to 200 quickly after the business opened.
Not only is the company hurting, but the city will lose out on sales tax money and cash from the host community agreement it has with Nova Farms, Ross said.
Like the five retailers who filed suit, Ross argued that many retail customers are actually medical customers who don’t have medical marijuana cards.
He said as many as 74 percent of adults who buy marijuana at recreational shops are actually “self-medicating,” making them important outlets.
Some news outlets have reported that applications for medical marijuana cards have surged since the adult use shops were ordered to close.
Baker argued on Wednesday that recreational marijuana shops attract too many out-of-state visitors, which works against stay-at-home orders and the government’s efforts to stem the tide of coronavirus
“Significant numbers of the customers who procure cannabis at recreational marijuana dispensaries in Massachusetts are not from Massachusetts,” Baker said. “Making those sites available to anybody from the Northeast would cut completely against the entire strategy we’re trying to pursue.”
At a news conference Thursday, Baker said he’s not reconsidering his decision.
“I’m really focused at this point on the surge, which is going to involve trying to save the lives of tens of thousands of people here in Massachusetts,” he said, referring to a predicted increase in coronavirus cases and deaths. “And I really would hope that people in Massachusetts would focus on that too, because that is, in many respects, going to be our greatest challenge over the next two or three weeks.”
Ross said it would be easy for his shop and others like it to serve only patrons from Massachusetts.
“If they weren’t from Massachusetts we’d turn them away,” he said.
Meanwhile, Ross argued that other businesses on the border also attract and serve out-of-state customers. That includes liquor stores, which have been deemed “essential” and have been allowed to remain open.
He said one, Yankee Spirits in South Attleboro, had Rhode Island cars in its parking lot on Friday.
A person who identified himself as the manager of Yankee Spirits said he didn’t have time to talk to a reporter Friday morning due to a heavy influx of customers rushing to buy booze for Easter weekend. “Call me next week,” he said. “It’s too crazy in here right now.”