Cannabis Attorney Says New York's Legal Market Isn't Actually Off to a Slow Start

Scheril Murray Powell looks to help facilitate the entry of pre-legalization cannabis operators into the market.

This story was republished with permission from Crain’s New York and written by Olivia Bensimon

From her first cases as a cannabis attorney, Scheril Murray Powell knew she wanted to focus on equity and representation in the budding legal marijuana industry. As one of the attorneys helping Black farmers enter the medical marijuana sector, she sought to raise their standing in cultivating the plant. Since then, she’s helped seven states legalize cannabis.

Scheril Murray Powell / Photo by Buck Ennis

Murray Powell also sits on the ASTM International D37 Committee on Cannabis and the Bureau of Standards on Cannabis for Jamaica, both groups tasked with developing conventions for the plant and other related products.

Part of New York state’s approach to the legal cannabis market is to prioritize awarding the first licenses to those who’ve been affected by the criminalization and prohibition of marijuana. So in her current role as the chief operating officer of the nonprofit JustÜs Foundation, Murray Powell looks to help facilitate the entry of pre-legalization cannabis operators into the market.

Why is social equity so important to cannabis legalization in New York?

When we look at the legacy market – individuals who used cannabis outside of the legal framework during the period of prohibition – that community is extremely diverse. And when you look at the cannabis consumer base, that community is extremely diverse. So as we’re building a new legal industry, we want to retain that diversity. So it’s really important that, as we’re legislating and developing regulations, we keep in mind the need to have a diverse consumer base and a diverse commercial infrastructure.

Social equity is about looking at the business opportunity and making sure that the entrance points aren’t barred by unnecessarily over-regulating the plant. We need to have a framework for contributing to communities as we’re trying to remedy the harm that was done by the criminalization of cannabis.

The local rollout has seemed a bit slow. How can the process be sped up?

It is misplaced to refer to the speed that the Office of Cannabis Management is working at in New York as slow. I think they’re working strategically in order to honor the spirit of the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act, which has a strong emphasis on equity. So in order to honor that spirit, you have to define what that legislation looks like as executed in regulations, and that takes time.

I think they’re being honest about the pacing and their challenges and the due diligence that they’re doing to make sure that licenses are issued in accordance with the social equity targets that have been mapped out by the MRTA. We know what a legal industry looks like if it’s left to itself to diversify. It’s very homogeneous, and we don’t see the level of diversity that represents or mirrors the legacy industry or the consumer base. So the guardrails are necessary.

What are some pitfalls that New York should avoid?

We just need to embrace creativity as far as how we ensure that New Yorkers get to participate and lead in the market.

Analysis paralysis can be a problem. It doesn’t have to be perfect; it just has to be progressive and moving in the right direction. One thing that New York has done a great job of is being able to pivot and adapt with new information. That’s the biggest pitfall that I’ve seen in other states: They’ll double down when it’s just like, “This isn’t working.” How deep in the hole do we have to get before you’ll turn around?

One challenge has been a proliferation of unlicensed vendors. How should the city address this?

We weren’t anticipating this gray market, and in many cases, they’re counter-equity. I’m definitely a proponent of making sure that we honor our commitment to those people who do meet the social equity criteria that they will have the priority that I have seen written into the regulations.

I’m not ever going to be the person to say we need more arrests. How you manage this issue is, it’s not easy. The mayor has indicated that he doesn’t want to incarcerate; he doesn’t want to arrest them.

So I think that a really good strategy as far as approaching it is, one, educating the gray market as far as why equity has to be prioritized, but there will be opportunities for everyone. And two, also helping them understand what is the right process to participate in the new legal market. They just need to be patient and wait their turn.

One comment

  • michael mclaughlin

    February 22, 2023 at 10:07 pm

    Social equity is fine and dandy, but do any of these people running a cannabis business have any experience? Just because you fought the law and the law won, does not mean success. New York will run into the same problems the mature markets are experiencing—too much and many taxes, burdensome regulations and black markets. Too much weed grown. Capitalism and supply and demand does not care about social justice.

    Reply

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