Interviews & Profiles

More staffing needed to speed up legal cannabis rollout

A Q&A with Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes

Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes might be open to more funding for the Office of Cannabis Management.

Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes might be open to more funding for the Office of Cannabis Management. Yves Richard Blanc of Blanc Photography

Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes has served Buffalonians in the Assembly since 2003, and she became the majority leader in 2018. A stalwart advocate for minority- and women-owned businesses, she sponsored the state’s Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act, passed laws expunging minor marijuana convictions and ensured communities of color have a share of the state’s growing cannabis industry.

How well is New York’s adult-use cannabis program working?

I think it’s been working at the speed that is allowable given the fact that it’s a brand-new program, consuming two existing agencies: the (state) agricultural department and the (state) Health Department. Medical marijuana came over to the Office of Cannabis Management. They created a brand new agency with multiple other programs from other agencies. It’s very challenging to do. So, given what they had before them, I think they’ve done well.

What’s working well? 

I think the fact that they have put together rules and regulations and put them out for public view, the public made comments and the board responded. I don’t think it’s gone so well that people who wanted to be first are going to be first, but they have moved with speed in getting the regulatory process set up and if they had more staff they’d be in a better position.

What, if anything, needs to be improved? 

Staffing. They need to get more staff in place. I think we should open up the regional offices; there’s no regional office in Buffalo. Obviously that’s an issue of staffing again – it will help deal with the overall burden if you have more staff.

What do you think is behind the slow rollout?

They have resources, and by the way, they’ll probably get more. But the slowdown is also finding the people who can get through the civil service system. You could get people making lateral moves from the Health Department or other agencies, but once they get interviewed by the Office of Cannabis Management, it’s about finding the right fit. It’s one thing that needs to be picked up – we need to get people into these jobs so we can move faster.

What issues need to be addressed surrounding enforcement?

If a liquor store was opening without a license, would they be allowed to stay open? You have multiple stores publicly in your face selling illegal products. Who allows it to stay open? It’s a law enforcement issue. That’s my opinion. We have tweaked the law so the attorney general can pursue them and get them shut down. I would venture to say that if any law enforcement department decided they would not have somebody selling an illegal product without a license in the state of New York, they would shut them down. They have made a conscious decision to not engage with this and the district attorneys have followed all because we made this an illegal plant.

There are multiple bodegas who have a license to have a lottery machine, a license to sell beer, cigarettes and now they’re selling cannabis. There is something that can be shut down, it’s just that people have chosen not to. If I need to make a new law, tell me what the new law is. What should it be?

Do you have any insight why different levels of law enforcement are not cracking down?

I have no idea. I know that if a liquor store was opening like that, it would shut down immediately. It would not move down two blocks and reopen.

Once we get past this lawsuit and get more people with legal businesses open, there will be other strategies to get OCM, the tax department and the attorney general’s office to fine somebody (whose business) is illegal. Maybe we will start plastering big red signs on their doors: “This is an illegal business.” Something that can’t be taken off. The more legal stores we’ll get open, the better off we’ll be in shutting down illegal ones.

What issues need to be addressed surrounding social equity?

People need to stop taking us to court, for one, and they could get their businesses open. The other area, quite honestly, there was an entire mentorship program specifically for these people. I don’t have a number, but some will now be eligible to apply for a license if they went through the program. Now there are legacy entrepreneurs, both growers and people who were formerly selling, who went through a mentorship program to prepare themselves. They’ll be licensed already. The people who are running the illegal shops, I don’t believe are legacy people at all. I think they’re opportunistic. They saw an opportunity and they didn’t see law enforcement doing anything about that.

Can they be brought into the system?

Yes, if they go through the proper process of applying for a license. I don’t think we should just walk right over to them and say, “You’ve been selling illegally over the past year, we should give you a license.” They’ve been breaking the law, stealing and taking money out of communities that have been disenfranchised. So no, I don’t think we owe them anything. We should shut down their businesses, and they should go through the process of applying for a license. They have plenty of money, and they’re paying taxes soon.

Are there enough resources in place to run the program effectively?

There are enough resources in place but every agency is up yearly with increases for their budget. It could be about staffing stuff, and it could be about equipment. I do not think they are underfunded. New funding is not something I would refuse to entertain.

Are there successful models that can be followed to improve the program?

No, actually I don’t see another state that is legal that has done an exceptional job at social equity. I’ve looked for it. I haven’t seen it. I do understand that California is doing a really good job at investing in impacted communities. I think it’s something we should take a look at for our own advisory community. We know where impacted communities are by the war on drugs. The data is in, it’s all set. And there is an advisory board in conjunction with the legislation to make the decisions to use the dollars the state has to invest in these communities. Some 440,000 people have had their records expunged.

How will the settlement change things? What are the next steps?

I think the registered organizations, multistate operators and the out-of-state managers will be looking to get market advantage. These are the guys who have multiple licenses for other states where it’s legal to have adult-use cannabis. They’ve already held up long enough. I believe that will be the direction that will go and that’s who they are. 

Once smaller entrepreneurs have a license, they’ll have products they can sell. There’s options for them. If it were put to the multistate operators, it would be all them, so we opened up our market to adult use – they would have totally consumed it otherwise.