Dasheeda Dawson believes her personal and professional experiences with cannabis uniquely suit her to run Cannabis NYC, housed within the city’s Department of Small Business Services.
Growing up in East New York, she saw firsthand how harshly various authorities treated friends and neighbors who used or were suspected of using cannabis during the so-called War on Drugs. For a long time, she associated cannabis with such severe stigma and potential consequences that she wanted nothing to do with it.
Now a proud cannabis patient, educator and regulator, Dawson sees the transformative power for individual communities – and New York as a whole – of demystifying and destigmatizing the plant, empowering civic-minded entrepreneurs, and bringing the industry out of the shadows.
Dawson talked to Crain’s New York Business about persuading legacy operators to join New York’s legal market, ensuring that the industry is just and equitable as well as profitable, and what we should — and shouldn’t — tell young people about cannabis.
What’s a typical day for you as founding director of Cannabis NYC?
My primary role is to lead the strategic development of the city’s legal cannabis industry and develop the framework that will ensure that we have an equitable and sustainable and safe industry.
Cannabis NYC is an interagency hub of resources and citywide services to support all New Yorkers who are interested in the industry, from consumers to patients to entrepreneurs and beyond, as we think about the economic development and restorative justice potential of the legalization movement.
The average day is a mix. Sometimes I’ll focus on digging into strategic planning, procurement planning, fleshing out how we will execute certain things that we’re trying to build and curate for the city. I work with more than 120 city leaders across 15 agencies.
Cannabis use is far less stigmatized now that it’s legal in so many places. How did you see cannabis when you were growing up?
I grew up in East New York in the ’80s and ’90s during the height of the city’s war on drugs. East New York was one of eight neighborhoods in New York City that represented more than 80% of the prison population.
I still have a lot of trauma from the way we were overpoliced and disinvested in, and a large part of my negative perception of cannabis had to do with watching people, young men in particular, 12, 13, 14 years old, dropped to the ground or abused in some way for [possessing] very, very small amounts of cannabis. [I was] constantly being warned that if I wanted to make something of my life, I needed to stay away from all drugs, in particular cannabis, since that was the one that you could smell right away and it would give you away.
Fast forward to my twenties. After having a child, I started [experiencing] a lot of flareups of the kind pregnancy will trigger if you have an autoimmune condition. It became clear that I had early signs of MS and cannabis became one of the best [treatment] options. My relationship with cannabis changed to one of necessity, but I felt very ashamed of being a user because it wasn’t something I could readily talk about.
Part of my desire to come into the industry was to demonstrate that there are millions of responsible users and consumers within New York City and all over. I deserve to be a patient with dignity; we all do.
How do you think we should talk to kids about drugs?
I have a 19-year-old son, so I’m speaking from experience. We know that when we educate with the truth, young people tend to choose a bit better.
I’ll give a perfect example. When I was 18, I did the TIPS certification [an alcohol server training program] and became a bartender, and I was the only one of my friends that didn’t drink. I understood the seriousness of what could happen to an establishment if I served customers under 21 and I got really well trained on spotting signs of over-intoxication. And as a result I was that much more responsible compared to a lot of my friends.
My son has a very different relationship with cannabis because his mom has been using it as medicine for 15 out of his 19 years. And after about age 13, we started really talking about it.
Data shows that after age 10 we’ve already missed some of the conversations that are happening [among kids]. I’d rather give my son real scientific information about the plant, real data about the risks and the rules and what that meant for him, but also what it meant for me as a mom, particularly as a Black mom and certified patient. His relationship [with cannabis] as a 19-year-old is just far more mature and understanding compared to that of some of his friends. We’re aiming for more responsible thinking about cannabis as opposed to it being something salacious and fun to do behind parents’ backs.
What’s the best way to persuade someone who has been selling cannabis illegally to enter the legal market?
The policies have changed, and it’s either going to be folks who have been in the previously existing market for decades coming to the table or people who don’t belong to our communities.
I’m also very adamant about the structure we created in New York with 40% of cannabis tax revenue going back to the communities that have been disproportionately impacted. I also think that a lot of these entrepreneurs and operators are tired of living in the shadows, and although there’s a lot of frustration with bulky frameworks and overregulation, they’re willing to go on that journey because they want to try for the chance [to build] generational wealth.
People are fearful because they don’t trust the government and don’t trust that [cannabis will remain legal]. I hear a lot about it potentially being a scam.
In an op-ed you wrote this year you said the ideal approach is to bring legacy operators into the legal market through rehabilitative engagement. What is it and how does it work?
What that means right now is that folks who have received cease-and-desist letters and stopped [selling cannabis illegally] are trying to figure out how they can get back on a path to [being licensed]. We’re experimenting and piloting. We have to think big, start small and act fast.
Starting small has been me reaching out to folks who were on that list and being in community and speaking with them about what they need to help them move forward and stay on track. For a lot of people it comes down to money. If this business was creating a revenue source for you, how is Cannabis NYC helping you sort through alternate sources of revenue that are legitimate that allow you to build as we wait for the [legal] market to be fully developed? How do you leverage a location or your expertise to transition into the space as a consultant?
Another way to rehabilitate is to make those networking opportunities happen so strategic partnerships can happen.
It’s one part of the equation. I’m a math and science girl. Sometimes I’m looking at things like a Rubik’s Cube or a puzzle. You could solve one side but mess up another side that you actually already solved. I’m constantly looking at the balance.
Adding a little bit more teeth to what can be done with unlicensed establishments will be a critical part of ensuring that we can transition people into the space and achieve the equitable outcomes that we want. Communities want to support the legal businesses that are owned and operated by people from their community.
It took nearly three years after Illinois legalized cannabis for the state to open its first majority Black-owned dispensary. How is New York doing from an equity perspective?
We’ve issued as a state nearly 600 licenses, and 165 of them are for dispensaries. If we’re doing an apples-to-apples comparison, we’re already winning compared to New Jersey, Massachusetts, Illinois. I use those as examples not because I’m hating on those states. But the way they approached it did not lend itself to seeing [many] Black- or minority-owned establishments.
… [By contrast, New York’s program to license] Conditional Adult-Use Retail Dispensaries (CAURD) focuses on entrepreneurs who had previously been arrested. Based on the data, over 90% of arrests during the height of the War on Drugs were of men, more than 50% were of Black people, and more than 30% [of arrestees] identified as Hispanic. We are seeing those numbers play out in the CAURD recipients.
We have to balance women because women were not arrested at the same rate, but they were left in the communities that were being damaged and there’s a lot of trauma and harm there, too. Based on our numbers versus those in other states, we already have more [open minority-owned dispensaries] than other states do.
When I convened the first annual member symposium for the Cannabis Regulators of Color Coalition in New York in April, we learned that New York is the tip of the spear as far as our intentional focus on an equitable rollout.
What does power mean to you?
Often when I hear “power,” it transitions to “empower” in my brain, as in, “Are you empowered to do something?” I thank God for my mother and my grandmother, who are no longer with us, because even in one of the worst neighborhoods in the country, East New York, they empowered me and my sisters to stand up for what we believe in, even if it’s not the most popular position.