Heard Around Town

Sorry to harsh the vibe, but all is not well in New York cannabis

Weed farmers, left out of the state budget, fear they won’t survive.

Workers operate a bucker, a machine that strips leaves and flowers from the stem, in a rented greenhouse belonging to cannabis farmer Marcos Ribeiro at East End Flower Farm in Mattituck, New York, on November 16, 2023.

Workers operate a bucker, a machine that strips leaves and flowers from the stem, in a rented greenhouse belonging to cannabis farmer Marcos Ribeiro at East End Flower Farm in Mattituck, New York, on November 16, 2023. CECILIA SANCHEZ/AFP via Getty Images

4/20 is a holiday with hazy origins celebrating cannabis culture and encouraging its use. Potheads in New York may rejoice in the holiday bliss, but the people creating their weed, from growers to dispensary operators, are hardly thriving after the state’s infamously bungled rollout. Farmers, left out of the state budget, aren’t sure how many of them will make it to next year while dispensaries are worried that flooding the market with new licenses will do more harm than good. 

“Our farmers face grim choices: cease operations, scale down, or fall prey to predatory financial practices from outside entities – the only ones willing to invest in our desperation,” said Joe Calderone, president of the Cannabis Farmers Alliance in a statement. “We are on the brink of an industry collapse”

Cannabis farmers in New York struggled during the first days of the rollout as the amount of dispensaries available to buy their product was minimal. Many were unable to see a return on their investment and faced financial catastrophe.

The Assembly and state Senate one-house budgets both included proposals for a cannabis farmer relief fund, $128 million in grants, loans and tax credits in the Senate rebuttal and $80 million in grants and loans in the Assembly’s. But as budget negotiations continued, funding for distressed farmers lost steam. According to a joint statement from state Sen. Michelle Hinchey and Assembly Member Donna Lupardo, who spearheaded the effort, a disconnect with Gov. Kathy Hochul killed the plan.  

“While we appreciate the effort to close illegal stores, making way for more locally grown products, it is too late for many farmers who can no longer afford to stay in business,” they said Friday. “If we want a successful and local legal cannabis market, it’s incumbent upon us to do everything in our power to support the NY farmers who are growing this product. The lack of a relief package agreement with the Governor does just the opposite.” 

Farmers were more blunt. “On March 4, during the Farm Bureau’s Taste of New York event, Governor Hochul looked our farmers in the eye, promising to work with the legislature on providing immediate cash relief,” said Calderone. “Yet, here we are, the crisis worsening, with Hochul's office showing a chilling disregard for those same farmers.”

The state budget does include legislation that would make it easier for the Office of Cannabis Management and local authorities to shutter illegal dispensaries and seize products while legal proceedings play out, as well as adding new penalties for stores that sell cannabis under the table. 

Assembly Member Zohran Mamdani, who enjoys cannabis personally, said “growers' concerns are a real thing.” The progressive Astoria lawmaker added that defending against illicit dispensaries was crucial but by no means were conversations around legal cannabis done.”We have to ensure we’re living up to the aspiration of the legislation where we would be putting working people first,” said Mamdani. 

Farmers are also in conflict with their brothers in arms on the dispensary side. The state government appeared to be open to a rapid expansion of the market, releasing licenses at a higher clip, driven in part by Hochul’s public frustration with the slow rollout. 

The Cannabis Association of New York expressed concern in a letter to leaders in state government and cannabis administration that flooding the market with more dispensaries, even legal ones, would lead to an oversaturation of the market and unsavory business practices like selling to minors. Meanwhile, cannabis growers feel that stance ignores their plight. 

“There absolutely does have to be an evaluation,” said Kate Miller, a cannabis farmer and owner of cannabis brand Peregrine Toke. “I don't think at barely 100 legal dispensaries is the time to be putting on the brakes, especially when there are large areas across the state that do not have legal dispensaries. Those areas are being completely served by illegal stores cause they are in every town, selling away.”