This story was written in partnership with Crain’s New York, the trusted voice of the New York business community.
by Dasheeda Dawson, Cannabis NYC
It took nearly a century to suppress the legacy of cannabis in American agriculture and medicine. Just a decade ago, as a Brooklyn native who grew up during the height of cannabis criminalization, I could not have imagined buying an eighth of weed legally in New York City.
Despite the history, on March 31, 2021, the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act, championed by Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes, state Sen. Liz Krueger and the StartSMART Coalition, became the country’s landmark equity-centered law to intentionally hold government accountable for restoring and repairing communities disproportionately impacted by the overpolicing and disinvestment of the prohibition era.
I never expected the damage from decades of harsh laws and entrenched negative stigmas to disappear overnight. However, some have criticized the state’s timing, peddling the narrative that it is moving too slowly.
Analyzing the adult-use markets legalized prior to New York’s, every state had a lag period between legalization and launch, more often giving first access to already licensed medical operators, which further exacerbated inequities in the industry. In 2016 California and Massachusetts legalized adult use, and both opened the market for sales in 2018. In 2020 New Jersey legalized cannabis, and the state opened the market for first sales in 2022.
Providing 300-plus licenses to justice-involved individuals, small-business owners and farmers, the New York state Office of Cannabis Management should be commended for rapidly building a seed-to-shelf supply chain in less than two years, culminating with the first dispensary opening in December 2022.
New York is also taking an unprecedented approach to support previously existing, unlicensed cannabis entrepreneurs, often referred to as “legacy operators,” transition into the legal industry. Though others demonized the legacy market, New York has embraced the underground culture and its credibility.
The state’s conditional adult-use retail dispensary license and Cannabis Compliance Training and Mentorship Program mark the start of intentional inclusion in New York’s market. The nonprofit CAURD licensing opportunity also demonstrates an extraordinary model that supports sustainable funding to organizations that have served marginalized communities, provides opportunities to those same communities for retail workforce development and contributes to state cannabis tax revenue, 40% of which goes back to the communities disproportionately impacted by criminalization.
Amid these groundbreaking advancements for the state, New York City is contending with the proliferation of visible, unlicensed smoke shops, a common trend experienced during the lag period in other markets. From my experience in legalization efforts across the country, an industry grounded in restorative justice requires a three-pronged approach to enforcement:
- Facilitating the transition of preexisting legacy operators into the legal market through intentional programming and resources;
- Bringing unlicensed businesses that have received warnings into compliance through rehabilitative engagement; and,
- Using civil enforcement actions to disrupt unregulated activities that pose a risk to public health and safety.
Mayor Eric Adams launched Cannabis NYC to support New Yorkers starting or growing a legal cannabis-related business. As an emerging multibillion-dollar industry, cannabis will contribute significantly to the city’s economic recovery and can address the past wrongs that disproportionately affected Black and brown communities.
Cannabis NYC is on a mission to make our city the global leader in cannabis industry excellence in education and equity across business, science and culture. To accomplish this, MRTA’s intent must be protected, and efforts to repair social, economic, environmental and human injuries caused by prohibition must not be derailed by stigma and misinformation.
Cannabis NYC is actively creating an interagency hub of free resources and services for all New Yorkers, kicking off with a five-borough informational tour, in collaboration with the New York City Housing Authority and the Mayor’s Office of Equity. We are partnering with industry pioneers and institutions to support citywide public education initiatives, workforce training and curriculum development. The NYC Cannabis Policy Advisory Commission will include a diverse group of local and global experts, including racial justice, economic development and health equity leaders tasked with publishing an annual policy report. This is just the beginning.
Cannabis is a plant with agricultural, industrial, nutritional, medical and spiritual utilities that will have global impact, from health to hospitality to housing. Armed with the right alignment of community advocacy, business innovation and government leadership, at the state and local level, New York is poised to become a model of cannabis excellence for the world.
Dasheeda Dawson is founding director of Cannabis NYC.