WTF Is Up with Cannabis in New York?

Photo by Sven Przepiorka

Welcome to New York, the next cannabis frontier. We've all heard that before (ahem, California). But seriously, with recreational cannabis visible on the horizon in New York state, what would a legal cannabis market actually look like there?

Well, throughout September and October, the state rolled out a series of listening sessions to find out what New Yorkers want from their legal cannabis market. Each of the five boroughs, and various cities around the state had a chance to tell the government just what they think and what they care about when it comes to the little plant. I attended the Manhattan listening session on September 20th, and one thing was clear: New Yorkers care deeply about social equity.

What exactly is social equity?

Social equity, in this instance, refers to the specific laws and regulations that fall under the umbrella of a single, deep-seeded issue: that cannabis prohibition is a racial issue at its core. Resident after resident made comments related to some sort of civil rights issue—from sealing the records of those incarcerated for non-violent cannabis crimes, to diverting tax revenues to communities most harmed by prohibition (i.e. Harlem, South Bronx and parts of Brooklyn and Queens), to rolling out parole and reentry programs for the incarcerated, to demanding an end to the targeting of black and brown communities for cannabis-related infractions, to creating tax incentives and support programs for minority founders (especially those previously convicted of a non-violent cannabis crime).

Many states with recreational cannabis laws have social equity legislation, but many leave this up to the city to set. New York City has a shameful record of targeting black and brown communities for cannabis-related arrests.

“Across the city, black people were arrested on low-level marijuana charges at eight times the rate of white, non-Hispanic people over the past three years," according to a recent story in The New York Times. "Hispanic people were arrested at five times the rate of white people. In Manhattan, the gap is even starker: Black people there were arrested at 15 times the rate of white people.”

Here’s something white privilege often doesn’t allow many to see: When you’re black or brown, there are no second chances. If you’re arrested, there is no bail, there is no calling the family lawyer, there are no favors or warnings. There is only a court date, fines that turn into debt, and typically, a guilty plea as a last ditch effort to avoid additional legal fees. If that wasn't bad enough, there's a huge risk of physical harm if you are black or brown and have a run in with the NYPD.

The chips are stacked against these communities and many people see recreational cannabis as a step toward rehabilitating a system that has done so much damage.

What's the deal with "Medical Marijuana"?

Besides social equity, the second most talked about issue of the night was around medical marijuana. Medical Marijuana regulation came up 24 different times, including a number of references to treatment or studies around cannabis as a treatment for opioid addiction. In 2016, New York passed their medical cannabis legislation.

Today it services over 74,000 patients, according to the state health department. This market differs greatly from most medical markets, however, as patients aren’t allowed to actually smoke medical cannabis. The only form of care patients can receive is through oils, topicals, and some edibles like lozenges. But New York medical patients want access to the whole plant; they want to grow it themselves.

Are there protections against oligopolies?

Wtf even is an oligopoly? It’s essentially when a few very large corporations own most of the market share. So, if you’re a small business trying to launch or scale, it would be harder—let’s be real: impossible—to compete against huge corporations. And if you’re a minority or a woman, it’s especially hard as you already have existing systems working against you. Either through state programs, tax exemptions or discounts, New Yorkers want a way for small, minority-owned businesses to be able to compete with the Coca-Colas of the world.

New Yorkers have are reputation of being ambitious, tenacious, outspoken, and persevering. And that's exactly what we saw at the listening session in Manhattan: An assembly of people who built the New York black-market and demand to have a part in shaping the economics of the recreational cannabis industry, because it is their right. They expressed a very real fear of having their voices taken away by large capital corporations, as this industry evolves.

So what does this all mean for New York?

The state and Governor Cuomo’s appointed workforce are dedicated to drafting legislation for a recreational cannabis bill. They are compiling all the feedback acquired at these listening sessions. They’re also working with city level governments to begin budgeting and rollout procedures across New York City. The city has also already begun sealing the records of those incarcerated for non-violent cannabis crimes. And these are all good signs for what’s to come.

As a New York resident — ILY, Harlem — and a cannabis enthusiast, I’m cautiously optimistic about New York's ability to create a socially equitable and fair cannabis market. New Yorkers can rally and organize with the best of them and so far, the state is taking active measures to listen to and engage with with the communities as they shape this legislation.

We're watching you, New York. Fingers crossed for a greener Empire State.

Meryl is a Portland- and New York-based cannabis advocate and founder of Barbari, a cannabis brand committed to bringing back the herbal spliff.