Cannabis was legalized in New York State when the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act was signed into law on March 31, 2021. More than two years later, Western New York has yet to see a legal weed dispensary – outside of those operating on Seneca Nation sovereign territory.
The dozen or so would-be vendors who have made their way through an onerous licensing process are now faced with another uphill battle: finding locations that will tolerate their businesses.
If it’s possible for New York’s Office of Cannabis Management to ease the way for these retailers, it should do whatever it can.
Good intentions and a flawed rollout
The road to legal adult-use cannabis sales in New York has been long and rocky, lined with bureaucratic requirements and littered with unexpected obstacles – such as a lawsuit from an out-of-state vendor who wished to bypass the state’s restriction that New York residents who were “justice-involved” must get the initial preference.
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This is a welcome gesture toward the thousands of New Yorkers, mostly people of color, who have suffered from disproportionately harsh penalties associated with the possession or sale of cannabis during the decades when it was illegal.
Unfortunately, Variscite NY One – a Michigan-based company – claimed the state’s selection process favored New York residents over out-of-state residents in violation of constitutional interstate commerce protections.
This led to a November 2022 judicial order temporarily barring retail licenses for the five regions Variscite selected for its operations: Brooklyn, Central New York, the Finger Lakes, the mid-Hudson region and Western New York. In late March, the injunction was narrowed to the Finger Lakes alone.
As a result, though the state’s plan had retail outlets opening by December 2022, Western New York licensing did not begin until April. Given the difficulty people are having finding locations, it might be months before many of these vendors are able to open a shop.
Struggling to compete
As recently reported, licensee Gina Miller said, “I’ve heard those bigger plazas don’t want to risk losing their national tenants for a 3,500-square-foot store, even though it brings traffic, because of the federal regulations.”
Meanwhile, these legal retailers must face the reality that “gray market” cannabis is being sold illegally all over the state, by people who haven’t bothered with any licensing process. There are also independent shops located on Seneca Nation sovereign territory, as well as the Nation’s dispensary at 765 Niagara St. in Niagara Falls.
Though New York’s recently passed 2024 budget imposed a crackdown on the unlicensed operations, including hefty fines and product seizures, this competition still exists, hurting legal businesses and depriving the state of the tax revenue legalization was supposed to bring with it.
While some might shrug this off, given that cannabis is now a legal product, it’s important to note that licensing – and all the regulations that come with it – help prevent the sale of adulterated product and the sale of any product to minors.
Law-abiding cannabis retailers deserve support from the state as this fledgling industry struggles to find its footing, and – hopefully – will soon have higher acceptance levels from the communities in which they seek to operate.
Many Western New Yorkers, raised on campy – and utterly false – clichés like those depicted in the 1936 propaganda classic “Reefer Madness,” are still leery about legal cannabis sales, despite the success of New York’s medical program, established in 2014.
But those who fought for legal recreational sales contend that criminalization has done the most harm of all. Current license holder Glen Miller could attest to this. He ended up serving 20 years in prison or on parole for state and federal cannabis convictions. Lives have been ruined for the possession or sale of a drug considered less harmful than nicotine or alcohol; that harm has also disproportionately affected New York’s most vulnerable communities.
There’s also no question that the federal illegality of cannabis has been a barrier to the acceptance of legal recreational shops.
Yet, nearly two dozen states have legalized adult-use cannabis and more could be on the way. Where it has been legal the longest – places like Denver and Los Angeles – dispensaries have become part of entertainment complexes that also include hotels, art galleries, other retail, concert venues and more. Universities throughout the country offer courses, certificates and even degrees in the agriculture, medicine, business and legal aspects of cannabis.
Given all this, New York’s growing pains should eventually subside and the local cannabis industry will proceed legally and safely.
In the meantime, Western New York’s retail pioneers deserve support from the state that launched them on their journeys.
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