NY Legal Pot System to Focus on Social Justice

As March 2021 ended, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed into law a bill legalizing adult, recreational use of marijuana. New York, thus, became the 16th state to let its residence consume cannabis for whatever reason they like. As usual in legalization situations, this is creating a gold rush situation in which a few are going to make some serious money. Yet, there is an opportunity to achieve more.

In Albany, the politicians have tried to spread this future wealth around by setting aside half the licenses for persons of color and women as well as some farmers and veterans. In addition, those with criminal records for acts that are now legal will see their records expunged, which goes a long way to helping some individuals find and secure decent jobs. And speaking of jobs, the governor’s office anticipates the creation of 30-60,000 jobs generating $350 million in tax revenue.

Looking at the license set-asides first, the governor’s office states, “A social and economic equity program will facilitate individuals disproportionally impacted by cannabis enforcement, including creating a goal of 50% of licenses to go to a minority or woman owned business enterprise, or distressed farmers or service-disabled veterans to encourage participation in the industry.”

Now there are some weasel words here, “creating a goal” is a very different thing than achieving it, and it is unclear to me exactly what happens if the goal is not achieved. As a grandson of a North Dakota farmer, I have yet to meet a farmer who does not feel distressed given crop prices, fuel and fertilizer costs and the ever-present threat of bad weather. The fact is drawing the line on who is and who is not distressed is going to be an issue.

That, however, is glass-half-empty thinking.  Attorney Rosemarie Moyeno Matos stated, ““As a cannabis and business attorney practicing in the New Jersey and New York cannabis space, who has represented applicants during the 2018 and 2019 RFA’s issued by the NJDOH, I am elated to see that New York has finally moved toward legalization of adult-use with much-needed initiatives on social equity and social justice reform. Congratulations to the residents of New York!  As the legislation is rolled out and licenses awarded, I look forward to seeing those minority communities largely marginalized by the prohibition on cannabis growing in a space where they were historically treated disproportionately.”

Entrepreneurship is going to be the hallmark of the next couple of decades throughout the economy. Kids listen to their elders tell of well-paid work for the same company for life followed by a retirement pension much the way their elders listened to stories of dragons and princesses. The fact is those under 40 face an economy wherein working for oneself is necessary because working for someone else is not feasible in the long run. A new legal industry like cannabis is a gift to those future business leaders.

Miriam Farer told me, ““As a first-generation Dominican woman, living in Northern Manhattan, founder of Herbas® CBD Body Care, I hope marijuana legalization opens the door for many more like me and for young and older people to be re-educated to view this plant as more than a right of passage and blunt but as a real business opportunity to reach generational wealth, legally. Our communities will need to let go of the stigma and start to heal so much wrong done by years of prohibition from false narratives that blocked their access to information about the healing properties of the plant. The people GOT heard in New York, we did not just legalize, we bought justice with us! All of us or none of us. Now the re-education work begins, in many languages, that is the New York I am from.”

Expunging the records of those classed as criminals for an act no longer illegal means that when they go to apply for a job, they don’t have to say “yes” to the question “have you ever been convicted of a crime.” That question on so many applications has prevented countless people from securing a decent job that might help them stay out of legal trouble.

Nelson Guerrero said, “Por fin! As an advocate and leader with the Cannabis Cultural Association here in NY, we can proudly say we won this round with Albany. An equitable bill has passed and we look forward to helping shape this new industry in our state. Cannabis legalization is a major step in righting the wrongs that have been done by the war on drugs, which has directly affected POC communities in NYS for years. This is a huge opportunity for people to have their records cleared and should lead to people being released from prison so they may take part in this industry or just live their lives in peace with no cannabis-related criminal record.”

He continued, “This bill creates great ownership and job opportunities for the POC community as a large emphasis was placed on minority ownership in the licensing process. We look forward to holding our state legislature accountable that the rollout of licenses and funds reflects the diversity of our state. I hope all the states that look to legalize soon follow in NYS path and allow for home cultivation. This is an amazing learning opportunity for all those abuelas and abuelos that may have been against cannabis to see the light. New York is now the beacon of the Cannabis industry on the East Coast, it is up to us all to make sure we lead by example because now the whole world is watching and taking note.”

Of course, in politics, the perfect is the enemy of the good, and this bill is flawed to be sure. The fact that the Office of Cannabis management has five members, three of whom are appointed by the governor, is a real problem. It gives effective control to the governor, and concentration of power into one pair of hands is never wise.

Leslie Hoffman, co-founder of the Asheville Hemp Project in North Carolina, told me, “We still need some small changes to the NY law — such as home cultivation starting much sooner than currently expected. There is no rational reason to protect the large multi-state operators by giving them 18 months of operation first.

“Hopefully the regulating agency will become knowledgeable quickly, and will recognize that many small and medium sized businesses will create a vibrant and resilient economic environment for New Yorkers to benefit from. This is a great way to provide equity for many, and licensure should not be too cumbersome or competitive. It will also give consumers many product choices in the market.”

The New York legalization is a big deal to be sure, but in the end, social justice and the rest can only come in full measure when the federal government does the same. Cannabis is now legal in states with a combined population of over 100 million. It is just a matter of time, and if the administration is serious about social and criminal justice, it needs to act quickly.