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Cannabis licensing in New York State has become a political issue with recent retail licenses awarded to “nonprofit” organizations that have a history of anti-drug and anti-violence advocacy. Why the 180 degree flip? Follow the money.

Some say, “It’s legal now, or the same thing happened with the legalization of liquor after the prohibition. Making it legal solved some problems.” What is happening now? Thousands of low-level marijuana dealers remain in prison, as well as those who were criminalized for marijuana possession while a multi-billion-dollar marijuana industry is now regulated, controlled and taxed by state governments.

New York State announced its first batch of licenses for retail dispensaries of recreational cannabis on Nov. 21, 2022, and nonprofit recipients include three New York City-based nonprofit organizations. Of the 36 licenses issued by the NYS Cannabis Control Board, 28 were awarded to individual businesses and eight to nonprofits, the state Office of Cannabis Management announced. These initial dispensary licenses were given in accordance with the state’s Conditional Adult-Use Retail Dispensary (CAURD) program, which gives priority to people with past drug convictions and their family members. Three New York City-based nonprofits—Housing Works, the Doe Fund and LIFE Camp—were among the organizations awarded licenses.

Of the individuals who were granted licenses, 19 belong to racial and ethnic minority groups and 20 were from areas with some of the lowest median household incomes in the country, OCM spokesperson Freeman Klopott reported.

Why are NYC nonprofit organizations based in low-income, working-class Black communities being targeted and awarded retail licenses by the Cannabis Control Board? And why are those organizations getting on board despite their decades-long anti-drug advocacy?

According to a Housing Works statement, “Since 1990, we have provided a comprehensive array of services to more than 30,000 homeless and low-income New Yorkers living with and affected by HIV/AIDS. We believe that providing stable housing is healthcare, and is the first step toward living a long and healthy life. Supportive services include—but are not limited to—housing, healthcare, meals and nutritional counseling, mental health and substance use treatment, job training, and legal assistance.”

The Doe Fund’s Ready, Willing & Able program has advocated making a commitment to change for more than 30 years. “On day one, participants begin earning a paycheck through in-house work assignments while they adjust to the program’s demands. Case managers work 1-on-1 with participants to orient them, assess their needs and set goals—including selecting occupational training and education tracks. In turn, participants commit to maintaining their sobriety and paying any owed child support. They begin a curriculum of evening classes and courses that last the duration of the program, including financial management, parenting and general education. To end the cycle of homelessness and recidivism, America must pass criminal justice reforms that end mass incarceration, alongside investing in community-based solutions that address the root causes of crime: poverty, lack of opportunity, mental illness and substance abuse.”

The I Love My LIFE Campaign, LIFE Camp, founded in 2002, “provides positive youth development opportunities that harness youth and community strengths and resources to address the epidemic of youth violence, and the conditions and behaviors associated with youth violence such as substance abuse, criminal justice involvement, and poor academic and professional engagement. LIFE Camp’s programs and services are community-driven and holistic, developed with the understanding that the best solutions to community problems reside in the hearts and minds of the community, and that strong collaboration and coordination of diverse stakeholders is essential to achieving positive outcomes for youth.” 

Their Anti-Violence Outreach workers are “required to serve as support for individuals to enhance their assistance, and use of opportunities and programs in the community job programs, GED, drug treatment, and mentoring.”

NYS Governor Kathy Hochul proposed a $200 million CAURD program in her FY 2023 Executive Budget, the nation’s first to make funding available for equity entrepreneurs at the forefront of the adult-use cannabis market. Through the program, industry licensing fees and private equity would support the development of dispensary facilities for equity-entrepreneurs with a CAURD license. 

As a disclaimer, the NYS Office of Cannabis Management states at the top of its website (https://cannabis.ny.gov/retailers-distributors), “Note this is not a license to sell marijuana. The Cannabinoid Hemp Program only regulates products derived from hemp.”

Is cannabis marijuana? Government double talk

According to the National Institutes of Health, “People often use the words ‘cannabis’ and ‘marijuana’ interchangeably, but they don’t mean exactly the same thing.’ The word ‘cannabis’ refers to all products derived from the plant Cannabis sativa. The cannabis plant contains about 540 chemical substances. The word ‘marijuana’ refers to parts of or products from the plant Cannabis sativa that contain substantial amounts of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). THC is the substance that’s primarily responsible for the effects of marijuana on a person’s mental state. Some cannabis plants contain very little THC. Under U.S. law, these plants are considered ‘industrial hemp’ rather than marijuana.”

What does industrial hemp contain? It is clear that these products can have an effect on a person’s mental state. How much is a “little” THC? The bottom line is industrial hemp is expected to generate more than a billion dollars in New York State within the next few years.

New York’s cannabis legalization law contains a provision to expunge certain convictions for marijuana-related offenses, and the state Office of Court Administration said the measure is expected to wipe out criminal records for potentially tens of thousands of people.

The deadline for expunging marijuana-possession convictions is two years from when the law was signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in 2021. The estimate of marijuana-related offenses that will be expunged is about 108,000, but that number is expected to grow to about 150,000 when all portions of the relevant cases can be identified.

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