Recreational pot has been legal in the state for a little over a year now as New Yorkers who partake are celebrating the second 4/20 since a new law lifted the prohibition. Unlike our neighbor New Jersey, which was set to begin the first retail sales on Thursday, New York still has a ways to go before weed gummies hit the shelves. But in the months since the Office of Cannabis Management got staffed up, the process of getting the industry off the ground has made some initial strides.
Although the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act passed in late March of 2021, it took many more months to get the Cannabis Control Board, which issues licenses and regulations, and the broader Office of Cannabis, which oversees all hemp and cannabis programs in the state, up and running. Despite the new law, former Gov. Andrew Cuomo seemed not to be in any great rush to make his appointments to the agency, hitting the brakes before anything even got started. “That delay was really unfortunate in terms of being able to keep the momentum moving through the end of 2021,” said Melissa Moore, director of civil systems reform at the Drug Policy Alliance.
But when Cuomo resigned and Gov. Kathy Hochul took office in August last year, one of her first acts was to nominate members to the Cannabis Control Board as well as an executive director for the new state Office of Cannabis. After receiving state Senate confirmation during a special session Hochul called, the state’s pot people got to work.
Leading the charge has been Chris Alexander, the executive director of the Office of Cannabis Management. Although a full year has passed since pot became legal, he said “it’s only been a minute” since his agency got staff and could begin building up the industry. “We're doing all that we can to advance the programs under our purview: medical hemp, and, of course, adult use,” Alexander told City & State. “Right now, our team is hard at work drafting regulations for the general reg(ulations) package, and (to) lay out the licensing criteria, the scope of activities, everything for these operations.” Just this month, the Office of Cannabis Management issued the first 52 cultivator licenses to farmers looking to enter the recreational cannabis industry, and Alexander said that they’re already prepared to begin growing.
The licenses came after the state agency released draft guidelines last month for the first 100 retail licenses reserved for social-equity applicants, specifically those who have been convicted of cannabis-related crimes or are related to someone who has. Moore praised the early commitment to make good on the social equity provisions integral to the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act. “The kind of opening shot toward that end, around having these the first retail dispensary licenses going to justice-involved people is an incredibly important move,” she said. The regulations have met some mixed reception over certain requirements that could make it hard for the intended beneficiaries to apply, but they’re still subject to change and only part of the broader social equity push Moore expects to see. “It's really just been a sprint to get the draft regulations out and keep the ball moving on these things,” she said.
For New Yorkers eager to begin purchasing cannabis legally, Alexander expressed confidence that the state is still on track for retail sales to begin by the end of the year with product from the newly licensed farmers. He pointed to a new Cannabis Social Equity Fund included in the state budget as providing much needed resources to keep the momentum going and help equity applicants get off the ground. “To be able to open a licensing window within four months of us getting staff, and then issue those licenses is incredible,” Alexander said of the existing evidence of the agency’s ability to move quickly. In addition to ongoing education campaigns, he said that the Office of Cannabis Management is preparing to release general regulations for the broader licensing process.
Moore offered slightly more reservation about the prospect of retail sales by the end of the year, recognizing the enormity of the task at hand and the decades of wrongs that will require correction. “I am feeling cautiously optimistic – I think we’re all aspirational who do this work,” Moore said. Despite some tempered expectations, she still said that New York appeared to be moving along better than other states she has seen. “We can't take our foot off the gas,” she said. “This is precisely the moment when we need to really keep the vision on the rails as it's being translated into reality.”
In the meantime, the lack of retail licenses hasn’t stopped many cannabis entrepreneurs from continuing their business as they bring their wares more into public view. So if you’re considering heading over to New Jersey for 4/20, maybe a quick stop by Washington Square Park would be in order first.
Correction: An earlier version of this story gave the incorrect date for when retail marijuana would be available in New Jersey.