During a press conference to announce the opening of Housing Works—New York’s first legal cannabis dispensary—on Thursday, December 29, 2022, in New York, Chris Alexander, executive director of the New York State Office of Cannabis Management, displays the first batch of cannabis gummies that was purchased there.
The first of 36 recently licensed dispensaries to start selling cannabis to the general public is Housing Works, a minority-controlled nonprofit that assists people with HIV and AIDS, the homeless, and people who have been incarcerated or have recently been released from prison.
Our sister publication NY Cannabis Insider’s reporters is conducting a master class in accountability journalism as they examine the slow, hazy, and frequently disorganized development of New York State’s legal marijuana market. This week’s meeting of state government leaders in Albany requires some oversight and leadership to determine what’s wrong and then fix it.
A blockbuster article by NY Cannabis Insider about the investment firm New York State hired to raise $150 million in private funding for the expansion of retail marijuana dispensaries across the state was published on December 1.
The plan is to give 150 turnkey locations to business owners who are in line to receive conditional licenses to sell legal marijuana because they or their families have suffered as a result of the state’s drug war. The state hired Social Equity Impact Ventures, a group that included Lavetta Willis, an entrepreneur and member of the NBA Hall of Fame, as well as a group from the investment banking firm Siebert Williams Shank.
It appears that the group missed a deadline of September 1 to raise the $150 million. The state Office of Cannabis Management changed the rules and will now permit licensees to secure their own locations because there is only $50 million in state funding available for leasing and outfitting dispensaries.
The past business dealings of Webber and Willis were investigated by reporters Brad Racino and Sean Teehan. They discovered the duo frequently fell short of their bold promises, such as building a nine-acre cannabis “compound” in Detroit and investing a $100 million fund in business owners of color.
The investigation also revealed that Webber and Willis had made a number of misleading or flat-out false statements about their accomplishments in the media, had shown signs of financial mismanagement, and had a connection to a significant player in the cannabis industry that might have put their work for the state of New York in conflict.
Before hiring Impact Ventures, did the Dormitory Authority of the State of New York have any knowledge of this? No, we cannot. A Freedom of Information Law request for documents that would reveal how DASNY selected the Webber group and what qualifications his team listed has not yet been complied with by DASNY.
Since NY Cannabis Insider requested the documents on Friday, 100 days have passed. (If you’re wondering what dorms have to do with marijuana, DASNY is the umbrella organization for funding state projects.) The organization has promised to answer the FOIL sometime this month after a number of delays.
Enough with the resistance. In comparison to its predecessor, we anticipate the Hochul administration to be more open and transparent. Racino noted that the Office of Cannabis Management missed the deadline of January 1 to create a social and economic equity plan, which was intended to direct the establishment of the state’s new marijuana business.
OCM stated that the plan would be delivered before the first quarter’s end. Fair enough, the state’s cannabis program has experienced delays from the beginning. In March 2021, the legislation legalized marijuana. Then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo put off appointing the Cannabis Control Board, the body that makes policy, and a person to head OCM, the new state agency that will carry out that policy.
Cuomo is not a fan of marijuana for medical or recreational purposes. Immediately following Cuomo’s tumultuous resignation in August 2021, Governor Kathy Hochul swiftly made the required appointments. The agency’s establishment (and staffing) as well as the creation of the rules took some time.
Hochul informed the editorial board in October of last year that the state would have 20 retail dispensaries operating by the end of the year. That did not occur. The first legal cannabis sale in the state took place on December 29, allowing the governor to claim that she met her goal of starting the market in 2022.
Let’s give credit where credit is due to OCM, which, in the words of Executive Director Chris Alexander, “built the plane while flying it.” In addition to expanding access to medical marijuana by allowing more providers to prescribe it, the agency’s annual report notes that 36 conditional retail licenses have been approved out of more than 900 applications, expunging more than 400,000 criminal records associated with marijuana convictions.
However, the state’s slow implementation has angered social justice activists, business owners, and growers eager to profit from legal marijuana. The police are also frustrated. The ability of consumers to legally purchase marijuana is out of step with the decriminalization of marijuana.
The void was filled by a thriving marijuana “gray market”. Without any direction from OCM, Syracuse is actively pursuing illegal pop-up retailers by enforcing its zoning laws and levying heavy fines. The legal marijuana market in New York will start to take off in earnest in 2023.
Hochul and the state Legislature must evaluate the cannabis program they established and pay attention to the people who are attempting to fit into it. If the government would just get out of the way, the industry would be ready to take off.