SCHENECTADY — With the first retail marijuana sales in New York looming, dozens of community members on Wednesday attended a public forum seeking information on how to obtain a cannabis dispensary license and ask questions about the state’s plans to compensate those impacted by the war on drugs.
Around 75 people packed the McChesney Room of the Karen B. Johnson Library, where representatives from the state’s Office of Cannabis Management gave an overview of the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA), and provided information on what individuals will need to apply for a conditional adult-use retail dispensary license.
The law, approved by lawmakers last year, legalized marijuana for adults 21 and over and established a framework for the cannabis industry moving forward. The legislation also expunged the records of those convicted of a marijuana-related offense and created the tax revenue fund for retail sales that will fund education, treatment programs and grants for communities disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs.
Much of how the cannabis industry will operate is still to be determined, but the state is currently in the process of finalizing regulations for the conditional retail licenses, which would essentially provide “justice-involved” individuals with prior business experience a fully-operational dispensary using $200 million set aside as part of this year’s budget, according to Tahlil McGough, deputy director of legislative affairs for OCM.
“The person who gets this license is not going to have to search for property, is not going to have to deal with a landlord. They’re not going to have to build anything or furnish anything,” he said. “They basically get a key and this is your dispensary.”
McGough said the 150 conditional licenses that will be available represent just a fraction of the thousands of licenses the state is expecting to issue for cannabis-related businesses. The conditional program, he said, was created to ensure those impacted by the war on drugs have the first opportunity to benefit from the legal cannabis market.
He added regulations for the conditional licenses will differ from the nine other licenses that will be available under MRTA, and are expected to be finalized by the end of summer. The first dispensaries in the state are expected to open by the end of the year, McGough said.
The state, earlier this year, began issuing conditional cultivation licenses after lawmakers approved a bill separate from MRTA allowing hemp farmers to be the first to grow marijuana crops that will be sold in the state dispensaries.
Under the proposed regulations, which are subject to change, an individual that has been convicted or a marijuana-related offense or was the child, spouse or guardian of someone that was prior to March 31, 2021, are eligible for the conditional dispensary license, but only if they have had at least 10% ownership stake in a business that made a net-profit for two years.
But several individuals in attendance took issue with the requirements, noting that having previous business experience disenfranchises a vast majority of those with marijuana convictions, and questioned what the state is doing to compensate others impacted by the war on drugs.
“You’re not compensating anybody by doing that,” said Steven Morgan, a 54-year-old Schenectady resident. “The only person you’re compensating is someone who qualifies for it.”
Morgan said a previous marijuana conviction when he was younger has plagued him for half his life. Unable to secure a job because of his criminal record, he eventually got caught up in the system and has spent decades in and out of jail.
During one prison sentence, Morgan said he was sentenced to one year of solitary confinement for smoking marijuana, which he said helps keep him calm. During an eight-month sentence for marijuana sales in 2019, Morgan said he missed his mother’s funeral, who died six weeks before his release.
“I wasn’t able to become successful because I already had strikes against me,” he said. “Marijuana turned into cocaine, and cocaine turned into crack, which turned into guns that turned into prison.”
Morgan believes the state should financially compensate those who were prosecuted for marijuana-related crimes when cannabis was illegal, noting that many who faced similar circumstances have no idea how to properly run a business and dealing with issues like poverty as a result of their conviction.
“What about the people who suffered?” he said. “After you give out the 150 cards then New Yorkers are dead?”
McGough, meanwhile, said the state estimates between 300 to 500 individuals will be eligible for the conditional licenses across the state and that the requirement of having prior business experience, while limiting, was designed to ensure those who receive a conditional license have the know-how about running a business.
“We just want to make sure you have the ability to do it,” he said.
McGough noted that those with marijuana convictions who are not eligible for a conditional license can still apply for another cannabis license to operate a cannabis-related business. He added that under MRTA 50% of licenses will be awarded to social justice applications, or those with a marijuana-related conviction, which is more than what others states that have legalized marijuana have done.
City Council President Marion Porterfield, who attended the forum alongside council members Carl Williams and Carmel Patrick, said she was happy to see the event was well intended. Asked about her thoughts on social equity concerns that were raised, she said any changes would need to be made on the state level.
“I think it’s probably not enough but it’s more than it’s ever been, so I would have to say it’s the beginning,” she said. “What I do appreciate is that they’re taking comments and allowing people to give input.”
Porterfield, who wanted the city to opt out of allowing retail dispensaries in order to address zoning guidelines, said the council will further discuss MRTA when final regulations are released. Retail sales carry a 4% local excise tax, with the municipality where the sale is made keeping 75% and the county receiving 25%.
Elsewhere, John Howard III, a Schenectady resident, said he is also concerned about what is being done to compensate those impacted by marijuana prohibition.
Howard, who attended the meeting to provide community members with information who could not attend, noted that those who have been convicted of a drug-related crime don’t always have the financial means that would afford them a cannabis business license and is worried about how the tax revenue will be distributed.
He added that he would like to see the state develop a program that would compensate individuals impacted by the war on drugs on a larger scale.
“If you really feel like you’re righting a wrong or trying to make reparations or compensate people that have been adversely affected, do it in a way that’s widespread,” he said.
Contact reporter Chad Arnold at: 518-410-5117 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @ChadGArnold.