Community rally urges swift action on retail cannabis licenses amid NY’s faltering recreational cannabis rollout

June 29, 2023 Rob Abruzzese
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Amid the beleaguered rollout of New York’s legal cannabis market, frustrated community members gathered for a rally outside Governor Kathy Hochul’s office on Wednesday, June 28. Advocates, business owners, and affected community members called for an immediate opening of the adult-use license application process as required by the 2021 Marihuana Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA).

Participants pointed out that despite the legalization of marijuana in New York, the illegal market continues to thrive due to the state’s inability to realize the equity and economic promise of the MRTA. A mobile billboard unveiled at the rally highlighted New York’s underperformance in generating tax revenue from the cannabis market compared to states with similar adult-use laws.

Among those leading the rally were Rev. Kirsten John Foy, founder, president, and CEO of The Arc of Justice and spokesman for the Coalition for Access to Regulated & Safe Cannabis (CARSC), and social justice activist Gwen Carr, mother of Eric Garner. The group demands that Gov. Hochul mandate the Office of Cannabis Management (OCM) to expedite the adult-use license application process to establish a safe, equitable, and economically viable program.

New York, along with 20 other states and the District of Columbia, has legalized marijuana for recreational use. The state put social restoration at the heart of its approach, reserving initial licenses for those disproportionately affected by marijuana prohibition or non-profit organizations supporting formerly incarcerated individuals.

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Despite these measures, the legal market faces stiff competition from illicit shops. According to estimates by officials and industry experts, there are at least 1,400 unlicensed shops operating in the five boroughs of New York City. Many consumers favor these outlets because of lower prices and greater accessibility compared to legal dispensaries.

Governor Hochul’s administration has been tackling this gray market. Under a new law signed by Gov. Hochul in May, state agencies have begun inspections of unlicensed shops, resulting in the seizure of at least 1000 pounds of illegal cannabis products valued at nearly $11 million. The state has also begun issuing hefty fines and initiating shutdowns of businesses operating without a license.

However, critics argue that these enforcement measures do not address the root causes of the problem. The vibrant illegal market indicates an unmet demand that the legal market has failed to satisfy. The state’s focus on penalizing the gray market, they argue, detracts from efforts to make legal cannabis more accessible to consumers.

Advocates like Shaleen Title, a former commissioner of the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission, emphasize the need for a pathway for underground businesses to transition into legality. Critics also highlight the need for patience and gradual change, pointing out that in states like Massachusetts, the legal cannabis industry took time to establish and gradually outcompeted the illegal market.

The rally underscores the frustrations many New Yorkers feel about the state’s cannabis rollout and the sense that the state has fallen short of the MRTA’s equity and economic promises. Rather than penalizing the illegal market, activists say, the state should focus on facilitating a more robust, accessible, and equitable legal market.


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