New York State

Hochul’s pot picks get the thumbs up

Former Assembly Member Tremaine Wright and cannabis advocate Christoper Alexander will oversee the new state program

Former Assembly Member Tremaine Wright and marijuana advocate Christopher Alexander are Gov. Kathy Hochul’s pics to lead the state’s recreational marijuana program.

Former Assembly Member Tremaine Wright and marijuana advocate Christopher Alexander are Gov. Kathy Hochul’s pics to lead the state’s recreational marijuana program. Darren McGee/Office of Governor Kathy Hochul

Making good on her promise, Gov. Kathy Hochul is moving forward the state’s recreational marijuana program after former Gov. Andrew Cuomo slow-walked implementation following legalization in March. The state Senate Wednesday night confirmed Hochul’s nominations of former Assembly Member Tremaine Wright to chair the Cannabis Control Board and cannabis advocate Christopher Alexander to serve as executive director of the new Office of Cannabis Management. The appointments are the first step towards legal sales, which are still over a year away and require those positions be filled before any regulations are set. “We are looking forward to your leadership and partnership, again, to make sure New York gets it right,” state Senate Majority Leader said.

Hochul made her nominations just days into her tenure as governor after five months of delay from her predecessor. Lawmakers and advocates alike were heartened to see her prioritize the marijuana program after Cuomo let it languish. “Thank you Kathy Hochul for moving on this so quickly, even though you must be drowning in issues to deal with,” state Sen. Liz Kueger, sponsor of the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act, said on the Senate floor. “But understanding six months of nothing wasn’t satisfactory, and we needed to get going.”

Alexander comes to the role with a strong background in the cannabis world as the former policy director of the Drug Policy Alliance, where he helped to craft the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act. After that, he served almost two years as associate counsel to the state Senate Democrats. And since September of last year, Alexander has worked as the government relations and policy manager at the cannabis company Village. Lawmakers had been pushing for Alexander as an option for months. “This has truly been a team effort,” Alexander said to the state Senate Finance Committee of the road to legalization. “I'm incredibly proud of the work that we have done, and I'm honored that the governor and then you all have allowed me another opportunity to serve.”

Wright had also been pushed by Assembly Majority Leader and MRTA sponsor Crystal Peoples-Stokes for months as a potential appointment and said Wright was important in pushing the bill forward. The former chair of the Assembly Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Caucus, Wright was also in want of a new job after losing her state Senate bid last year to state Sen. Jabari Brisport. Although she is not as closely associated with recreational pot as other lawmakers, Wright remained supportive of the social equity components of the legislation important to many legalization advocates and represented communities in Brooklyn hard hit by past prohibition that now would see reinvestment.

Wright also comes with legislative and bureaucratic experience from her time in the Assembly that will likely come in handy in her role as board chair as she interacts with both lawmakers and other agencies. “I think that the primary responsibility at this moment will be to get this program up and running,” Wright said when asked about her leadership plans if she is confirmed. “And that means that you've got to develop staff, a team of people who can come together and actually attack the challenges that are right here before us.” She added that she has plans to work with other states to learn about their programs.

Marijuana advocates welcomed the news, at least for one of the appointees. “Chris Alexander, specifically, I think will make an excellent executive director,” Allan Gandelman, president of the New York Cannabis Growers and Processors Association, told City & State. “He is behind the vision of the MRTA, and now could be behind the execution of it.” Although Gandelman doesn’t personally know Wright, he said he was encouraged to see someone dedicated to equity with legislative experience filling the chair role. Jawanza Williams, director of organizing with VOCAL-NY, shared similar sentiments having worked with Alexander. “It’s imperative that the new market has the standard of leadership that Mr. Alexander can provide,” Williams said, declining yet to opine on Wright. 

Lawmakers in the state Senate Finance Committee also praised Hochul’s choice of Alexander for executive director. “I think Chris is brilliant,” said State Sen. Diane Savino, a staunch marijuana proponent who has been closely involved in the legalization process. “I think you’re an absolutely perfect pick for this job.” State Sen. Jamaal Bailey echoed Savino’s comments. “There couldn’t have been a better selection by our new governor than Chris Alexander for this position,” Bailey said.

Wright is somewhat less known. Kassandra Frederique, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, applauded both Wright’s and Alexander’s appointments. “They both understand the deep harm that criminalization has caused to individuals and communities – especially communities of color – across the state,” Frederique said in a statement. “Their past work has reflected a commitment to working with people who have been directly impacted by prohibition and demonstrated a belief in evidence-based policies that center equity and justice.” Wright’s roots in impacted communities and support for social justice were not in question, but some members of the state Senate Finance Committee seemed wary about her appointment. “I'm concerned that you don't have direct experience in kind of just the cannabis industry itself,” Savino bluntly said of Wright. She added that she wants to help Wright and share her experience. “I think you have a lot to learn, a lot to learn,” Savino said. “You will see just how complicated this industry is and why so many people fail.” 

Still, despite her limited experience, other lawmakers said they had faith in Wright’s ability to step up in the role. “Clearly there’s a great deal to learn,” state Sen. James Skoufis said. “But having served with you in the Assembly… I have confidence you are up to the task.” She also had support when the full Senate weighed in her nomination. “I am glad that I am able to come to the conclusion that Ms. Wright may be right for the job,” state Sen. James Sanders cracked on the floor.

Wright made it out of committee comfortably, but not without a little contention. Among Democrats, Savino and state Sens. Julia Salazar and Toby Ann Stavisky all voted “no” on moving her along, while state Sens. Gustavo Rivera and Kevin Thomas approved without recommendation.

The appointments come after months of stalling by Cuomo, who sources said wanted to appoint his pot czar Norman Birenbaum as the executive director. Lawmakers and advocates rejected the idea, and no progress had been made since then. Sources at the time said that Cuomo was trying to appoint a figurehead with Birenbaum controlling things in an unofficial manner, something lawmakers and advocates alike wanted to avoid.

Before the end of scheduled session in June, sources said that Cuomo was prepared to nominate former Assembly Member Karim Camara, who also served in his administration, to chair the Cannabis Control Board. But that never happened, so legislators left for the year without movement on pot. Hochul’s action now has filled advocates and industry members with hope that implementation of the MRTA will finally begin with earnest. “We look forward to the next steps of fully establishing the Office of Cannabis Management and rapidly working to implement New York’s adult-use program to fulfill its promise of being a national model for legalization with equity, reinvestment and justice at its core,” Frederique said.