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StaffJune 23, 2023


This story was republished with permission from Crain’s New York.

A significant player in the psychedelics industry has received a $5 million infusion from hedge-fund billionaire and New York Mets owner Steve Cohen and his wife, deepening the couple’s efforts to bring mind-altering therapies into the mainstream.

The Steven & Alexandra Cohen Foundation is donating the funds to MAPS, or the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelics Studies, a nonprofit that has pushed for more research on psychedelic drugs since 1986. The organization is engaged in a financially-intensive push to get the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to approve MDMA, also known as ecstasy or molly, for use against post-traumatic stress disorder.

MAPS’ public-benefit-corporation subsidiary plans to submit a new-drug application to the FDA later this year, the foundation said in a statement Wednesday. If the agency approves an MDMA-assisted therapy for PTSD, MAPS and the foundation will create a patient-assistance fund to ease access to the treatment for needy individuals, backed in part by revenue generated by the public-benefit corporation.

If the FDA doesn’t approve MDMA, the $5 million will serve as a simple grant in support of MAPS’ work.

Alexandra Cohen, the president of the foundation, said in the statement that millions of Americans, including veterans and first responders, suffer from PTSD. “Psychedelic compounds represent a new opportunity to address these often treatment-resistant conditions and bring hope to patients,” she said.

The Cohens’ foundation describes itself as one of the largest private backers of U.S. psychedelic projects, having pledged a total of $60 million in delivered and promised grants—including an earlier $5 million to MAPS. The Cohens have mostly declined to discuss their support of psychedelic research in detail, but the foundation’s website outlines an array of ailments that could benefit from such therapies, including depression, anxiety, addiction and Alzheimer’s disease.

The Cohens aren’t alone in ramping up their support of psychedelics. Blake Mycoskie, founder of the Toms shoe brand, on Wednesday pledged $100 million toward psychedelic research and access. “I don’t see a chance in my lifetime to be part of something else that could end so much human suffering,” Mycoskie said on a stage at the MAPS Psychedelic Science conference in Denver.

Steve Cohen, 67, came to fame as the leader of hedge fund SAC Capital Advisors, which paid a record $1.8 billion fine in 2013 to settle a seven-year federal insider-trading probe. The legal battle partly inspired the Showtime series Billions. Cohen, who was never personally charged or sued, remains in the hedge-fund business at the renamed Point72 Asset Management. He bought full control of the Mets baseball franchise in 2020 after years as a minority owner.

MAPS is widely seen as a bellwether for the psychedelics industry. Not only could it be the first organization to bring a longstanding underground drug to the market through an official regulatory path, its not-for-profit ethos is seen as important by many in the psychedelics field, who believe strongly in broad accessibility for such drugs.

“We hope that foundations and philanthropists will consider similar innovative ways to fund MAPS’ critical work today and endow equitable access to these therapies in the future,” MAPS said in an emailed statement.

StaffJune 22, 2023


This story was republished with permission from Crain’s New York and written by Nick Garber.

The City Council passed a bill Thursday that would hold landlords accountable for renting to illegal marijuana retailers, the latest effort to step up enforcement against unlicensed smoke shops.

When city inspectors find an unlicensed shop selling cannabis, cigarettes or other tobacco products, the city could issue a warning to the shop’s landlord. If a subsequent inspection turns up more illicit sales, the landlord could be fined $5,000, followed by $10,000 for any subsequent violations, the bill says.

“By holding landlords accountable for knowingly enabling these illegal activities, we can restore the trust and security that our residents deserve,” Lynn Schulman, the Queens Council member who sponsors the bill, said in a hearing last week.

The wave of illegal weed shops— numbering 1,200 earlier this year—has compromised the state’s sluggish rollout of its legal cannabis retail program, which has resulted in only 15 shops thus far. The illicit sellers, besides competing unfairly with the legal retailers, have also been known to sell contaminated products and rely on cash-only transactions, resulting in lost sales tax revenue and frequent robbery attempts, Schulman said.

The bill passed the City Council by a vote of 48-0 on Thursday, with one abstention.

The council’s effort echoes a similar landlord-focused enforcement push announced earlier this year by Mayor Eric Adams and Manhattan D.A. Alvin Bragg. Bragg’s office sent letters to hundreds of shops suspected of illegal cannabis sales, saying prosecutors could force their landlords to evict them, while the city filed lawsuits against a handful of East Village smoke shops that implicated each shop’s landlord as a defendant.

The city has continued filing similar suits since then, court records show, including at least four complaints within the last month targeting smoke shops and their landlords in the East Village and Hell’s Kitchen. A spokesperson for Bragg said Thursday that the office has “ongoing investigations” into a number of stores, and is contacting landlords to educate them about the unlicensed cannabis market and ways to evict illegal tenants.

The council bill also comes weeks after state lawmakers took their own step toward cracking down on illicit weed shops. A provision in the state budget will allow the state’s Office of Cannabis Management to levy heftier fines to illegal sellers—up to $20,000 per day—and seize paraphernalia from unlicensed shops.

Hochul on Thursday announced the first results from those new enforcement powers, saying the state had seized nearly $11 million worth of cannabis since early June, through inspections of 33 shops in New York City and upstate.

Officials hope that this beefed-up enforcement will prove more effective than the city’s efforts so far, with smoke shops often reopening just days after being raided by the sheriff’s office.

The state’s reforms were somewhat belated, coming two years after New York legalized recreational marijuana.

“We acknowledge that Albany dropped the ball here when they legalized these retail licenses without any clear enforcement component,” Brooklyn Council member Justin Brannan said during last week’s hearing. “Unfortunately, in the city, we’re the ones that have to deal with their mess.”

StaffMarch 8, 2023


This story was reprinted with permission from Crain’s New York and written by Eddie Small

Marijuana had never been a big part of Brooklyn native Sasha Nutgent’s life. She hadn’t tried the drug before this year and was focused on her musical ambitions growing up, even getting signed to a record label at one point before deciding she was too shy for a pop star’s life.

So her new role running one of the city’s recently opened recreational cannabis stores is still a little hard for her to comprehend.

“I never saw myself working in this industry, and I think that I don’t even know how I got here,” she said. “It floors me every day.”

Photo by Buck Ennis

Nutgent works as the store manager at Housing Works Cannabis Co., which opened to great fanfare on Astor Place in Greenwich Village at the very end of 2022, becoming the first recreational dispensary in the city. Its arrival came a little less than two years after New York joined the growing number of states to have legalized the drug. Despite her initial lack of familiarity with weed, Nutgent has embraced her new job and particularly enjoys serving the diverse array of customers that patronize the store.

These range from locals to tourists to the occasional celebrity, such as former “Late Night With David Letterman” band leader Paul Shaffer, she said. At the store’s grand opening, Nutgent recalled, she saw one man wearing a hard hat decked out with spots for a bong on either side waiting in line next to someone who looked like he had just gotten off work from his corporate job, a stark juxtaposition that made her quite happy.

“That just made me smile,” she said, “to see people from different walks of life just truly enjoy what we sell and have something in common.”

Nutgent has a background in retail and had spent about seven years working at other Housing Works stores, starting in 2015 at its SoHo thrift shop. She was then promoted to manager of its flagship location in Chelsea and also worked at the Park Slope and Gramercy locations before the organization approached her about running its marijuana dispensary. She was nervous about taking the role given how new the industry was, both for her personally and for the city overall. The business is much more heavily regulated than the prior types of retail she’s worked in, but the general idea of customer service being paramount holds true no matter what you’re selling, she said.

Sales are going strong at the store, although the long lines have abated somewhat since it started offering deliveries and online preorders. The city’s retail industry was facing major headwinds even before Covid hit, but marijuana and cosmetics—another sector Nutgent has worked in—will keep going strong even if other sectors falter, she said.

“People are just really excited to be back out again and appreciate that face-to-face experience,” she said. “Things that make people feel good will always have a place to be successful.”

And Nutgent did recently try marijuana herself at a staff appreciation party in mid-January. She has come to find the edible products to be helpful for her anxiety, although smoking pot sparked some uncertainty her first time.

“I think I did it right,” she said. “I honestly don’t know, but I felt good afterward.”

StaffFebruary 1, 2023


This story was republished with permission from Crain’s New York and written by C.J. Hughes.

Because marijuana is still illegal at the federal level, landlords who have mortgages with federally chartered banks would seem potentially at risk by having pot stores as tenants, as doing business with a drug dealer, essentially, runs afoul of the law.

But even though federal officials haven’t said outright that they won’t enforce the law, some landlords seem unfazed, as in Greenwich Village, where the city’s second legal dispensary opened on Jan. 24.

“My only concern is: Is marijuana legal? And is the state of New York behind it? And the answer to both of those questions is yes,” said Herman Gans, an owner of 144 Bleecker St., which is home to the new cannabis shop, Smacked Village.

In 2011 Gans and his co-investors borrowed $6.8 million against the 4-story mixed-use building, which cost $4.2 million in 2001, records show. The lender was New York Community Bank, which is based on Long Island and holds $66 billion in loans for properties across the country.

A message left with the bank asking for an explanation of its position on working with landlords with cannabis-selling tenants was not returned by press time.

Cooper Katz, a broker with ABS Partners Real Estate who handled the Smacked Village deal, said it’s his understanding some financial institutions are advising landlords to tread carefully.

“Some of the banks are saying, ‘We’re OK with it,’ and others are not,” said Katz, who was the fifth agent to market 144 Bleecker, a 5,600-square-foot two-level space that had been empty since a Duane Reade closed in 2019. “But it’s definitely a conversation we’re having.”

If some federal lawmakers have their way, those conversations won’t be necessary for much longer. In 2020 the House of Representatives approved the More Act, which would decriminalize cannabis on a national level. And Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York has said he expects his chamber to take up the bill soon.

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