To Truly Pursue Equity in Marijuana Rollout, Cannabis NYC Needs a Makeover

Announcing ‘Cannabis NYC’ (photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)

It’s no secret that the War on Drugs has disproportionately impacted people of color in the United States, leading to the scourge of mass incarceration. In 2010, the ACLU released an analysis on cannabis convictions, showing that Black people in New York state were 4.5 times more likely to get arrested for possession of cannabis than white people even though both groups use it at the same rate. Ten years later, this phenomenon hasn’t changed. In 2020, the NYPD’s crime statistics data reported that people of color in New York City made up 94% of arrests and summonses issued for low-level cannabis violations.

It has been over a year-and-a-half since cannabis was legalized in New York. Heralded as the most equitable cannabis legalization effort in the United States, the Marihuana Regulation & Taxation Act (MRTA) focuses on groups that were impacted the most by cannabis prohibition – namely Black and brown communities. However, New York City’s program, Cannabis NYC, has not invested nearly enough into communities that have been hurt the most by cannabis prohibition.

As New York State implements its recreational cannabis licensing process with the first 36 licenses (and many more to come), and New York City provides a meager $4.8 million investment through Cannabis NYC, we must ask ourselves: is this really the best we can do?

In theory, New York has instituted impressive measures to uplift social equity entrepreneurs, or individuals with prior cannabis-related convictions seeking to open a recreational cannabis  business. Some of these initiatives include setting aside 50% of licenses for social equity  entrepreneurs to open recreational dispensaries and a $200 million investment fund that will  underwrite initial costs associated with leasing retail spaces and loan assistance.

Despite the support on paper, in practice the state is moving too slowly. The aforementioned retail spaces have not yet been secured and the fund has not raised the promised $150 million in seed funding. With Governor Hochul’s announcement that only 36 legal cannabis dispensaries will be in operation by the end of the year, there is reason to worry about how social equity entrepreneurs will be supported in this disorganized plan.

On the city side, there have been insufficient investments in social equity entrepreneurs. The  Adams administration created and tasked Cannabis NYC with providing services including license application assistance, outreach to communities that are eligible to apply for social equity licenses, and workforce development training for the cannabis sector. Even with these minimal responsibilities, Cannabis NYC barely fits the bill. Since Cannabis NYC was only established three months ago, most of the application support was falling on the shoulders of nonprofits and law firms, sometimes costing individuals up to $10,000 in fees.

Additionally, cannabis businesses are a costly endeavor with a $2,000 application fee for a  recreational license and high-cost barrier to enter the industry. Start-up costs for retailers can range between $250,000 and $750,000. The…

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