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Chicopee business owner stalled by vaping crisis, COVID-19 as he works to open marijuana store

JimBuddy’s Vape Shop in Chicopee seeks to open cannabis dispensary

CHICOPEE — When Jim Robinson opened his vape store five years ago, his goal was to expand into a retail cannabis store once marijuana was legalized.

After slogging through the state application process and facing multiple setbacks over the past two years, Robinson is now taking his last steps to opening by seeking a special permit from the city for JimBuddy’s Rec Shop on Memorial Drive.

Robinson appeared before the City Council’s zoning committee Wednesday. But the board postponed the vote and recommended he withdraw his application temporarily, until a traffic study is completed and his landlord resolves violations on the property’s parking lot.

“It would behoove the property owner to fix this issue to allow a possible tenant to move forward with permitting for their store,” City Planner Lee Pouliot said.

The property otherwise meets local requirements for a recreational marijuana license. Because the parking lot is small, Robinson said, he has leased 25 parking spaces from the neighboring Masse’s Seafood for staff and overflow customers.

Robinson said he also has gone “above and beyond” all security requirements including agreeing to hire off-duty police Thursday through Sunday.

If everything goes smoothly over the next few months and Robinson can receive a special use permit and final license from the state, he said he hopes to be able to sell his first cannabis products in early 2021.

Provided the permits are granted, the store will be the third recreational marijuana facility in the city. The other two are Mass Alternative Care on East Main Street and Theory Wellness on Fuller Road, according to state records.

“It will be a small boutique shop,” Robinson said. “We will use our experience to teach customers how it affects the body, about the potency levels, and we will educate you on different uses.”

Robinson said he plans to sell all the standard products, edibles, topical creams, and cannabis flower, which is about 60% of all sales in recreational shops. “We plan to be on top of the newest and best products.”

Since he will not cultivate marijuana, Robinson said he has been researching and visiting growers across the state to find the products he feels will be the best for his customers.

Robinson, who said he has been using cannabis as medication for years, is the first social equity applicant in the city. He qualifies because he has two prior convictions for marijuana possession. The equity program is designed to help those impacted by marijuana probation and the war on drugs.

He has been researching the industry since it was first legalized in the United States in Colorado, and has visited other states — including Washington, Oregon, Nevada and Arizona — to see how they rolled out the legalization of cannabis.

“Marijuana has been part of my life for years,” he said. “We used vaping as a stepping stone to lead me into the cannabis industry.”

In 2015 he and his wife, Lisa Robinson, opened JimBuddy’s Vape Shop (inspired by a childhood nickname) at 1271 Memorial Drive, selling a variety of products including e-cigarettes and different types of vape liquids. He also sells pipes and other products used to smoke medical marijuana, which had been legalized.

The business turned out to be successful on its own. As vaping grew more and more popular, JimBuddy’s developed a loyal customer base and more than 100 customers walked through the door daily.

“I think it was because of our customer service. We are willing to spend the time to educate people on different products and ways to use them,” said Kristie Robinson, who has been working in the family store for a few years.

Vaping, like marijuana, is often thought of as an insider activity and many people aren’t interested in teaching people who don’t know much about it — but Robinson said he is exactly what he wants to do.

Along with his years of using marijuana when it was not legal, Robinson said he was also a licensed medical marijuana caregiver for two years, providing it to people with prescriptions.

About a year after JimBuddy’s opened, voters cast ballots to legalize recreational marijuana. Robinson waited as the state wrote regulations to license businesses. The first two stores opened in the state in November 2018. Around that time the store next to JimBuddy’s became vacant, and he quickly rented it in anticipation of applying for a license to open his own recreational business.

He and his wife applied for the license themselves instead of hiring a lawyer, so it took time to research all the regulations and processes. They submitted the state application in January 2019 and he signed a host agreement with then-Mayor Richard J. Kos in February.

As they started working through the state process of answering questions and providing additional information, a crisis hit Robinson’s main business when people started falling ill to a lung disease tied to vaping. In September 2019 Gov. Charlie Baker declared an emergency ban on all vape products sold in the state while officials tried to track the cause of the disease. The ban was lifted in December, but the legislature passed a law ending the sale of flavored vape liquid, which was the bulk of Robinson’s business.

He said his focus was then trying to save the business he had built in the past five years.

By then there were multiple cannabis stores opened in the region so he changed the store’s focus from being a vape shop with some products used for smoking cannabis to mainly a “head shop” that sold some vape products. The store will remain if Robinson is able to open his cannabis store, he said.

Still, Kristie Robinson said at least four times a week someone comes in thinking they sell cannabis. She said she always tells people they hope to soon.

In December Robinson received word from the state that his application was complete, but he still needed a special permit from the city. So, he and his wife resumed their focus on opening the new cannabis business.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit and anything that didn’t completely shut down in March slowed to a crawl. For example, Robinson said he is just now able to find an engineer to do a traffic study, something that he had been trying to do for months but could not because of the pandemic.

If the special permit is approved, Robinson said he will return to the state for a provisional license. Renovations to the store next door have begun and he will complete them following state specifications laid out in the provisional license. Once they are finished he will receive his final license.

Even as he is working to open his store soon, Robinson is already thinking of the next step. He would like to open a cannabis delivery business to go with the retail establishment and later he may consider a cultivation business as well.

He is also preparing to open a vape store in Enfield where restrictions are not as strict.

Chicopee business owner stalled by vaping crisis, COVID-19 as he works to open marijuana store JimBuddy’s Vape Shop in Chicopee seeks to open cannabis dispensary CHICOPEE — When Jim Robinson

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