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New York recreational cannabis sales begin

<i>Kena Betancur /AFP/Getty Images</i><br/>Tremaine Wright
AFP via Getty Images
Kena Betancur /AFP/Getty Images
Tremaine Wright

By Emma Tucker and Laura Ly, CNN

The first public sales of regulated cannabis in New York began at a dispensary in Manhattan’s East Village on Thursday at 4:20 p.m., hours after the first sale was made to a city official, New York Governor Kathy Hochul announced.

Housing Works Cannabis Company became the first licensed dispensary in the state to open its location for business.

The dispensary is operated by Housing Works, a non-profit that services people living with HIV/AIDS and those who are homeless and formerly incarcerated, Hochul said. The store will be open seven days a week and all proceeds will be directed to Housing Works, which runs a “network of charitable retail storefronts,” according to the release.

“We set a course just nine months ago to start New York’s adult-use cannabis market off on the right foot by prioritizing equity, and now we’re fulfilling that goal,” Hochul said.

The measure will attempt to address the racial disparities in cannabis-related arrests with a social and economic equity program to “facilitate individuals disproportionally impacted by cannabis enforcement,” city officials have said.

The program includes “creating a goal of 50% of licenses to go to a minority or woman owned business enterprise, or distressed farmers or service-disabled veterans to encourage participation in the industry,” a city news release said.

“Today marks a major milestone in our efforts to create the most equitable cannabis industry in the nation,” said New York City Mayor Eric Adams in a statement on Thursday.

“The legal cannabis market has the potential to be a major boon to New York’s economic recovery — creating new jobs, building wealth in historically underserved communities, and increasing state and local tax revenue,” Adams said.

Bill signed in March 2021

In March 2021, former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a bill allowing recreational marijuana use across the state by adults 21 and older after the state Senate and Assembly voted to approve the legislation. The New York State Cannabis/Marijuana Regulation & Taxation Act also expunges previous marijuana convictions for actions that would be legal under the new law.

The bill allows adults 21 and older to buy cannabis from authorized sellers. Adults can also possess up to 3 ounces of cannabis and 24 grams of cannabis concentrate. Eighteen months after the first sales begin, the law will allow adults to grow six mature and six immature plants at home per household.

It also establishes the Office of Cannabis Management, an independent office operating as part of the New York State Liquor Authority, to implement a regulatory framework. The office was designed to have a two-tier licensing structure that would separate growers and processors from those owning retail stores, Cuomo’s office previously said.

The law will also add a 13% tax to retail sales for state and local tax revenue.

The development of a regulated cannabis industry in New York has the potential to create 30,000 to 60,000 jobs and the ability to earn $350 million annually in tax collections, CNN previously reported.

‘People are eager,’ CEO says

New York’s Cannabis Control Board issued the first 36 adult-use retail licenses on November 21, including 28 for qualifying businesses and eight for non-profits, according to Hochul’s office.

Housing Works received over 2,000 responses to its invitation to RSVP for the grand opening. The line outside the store was already stretching down the block hours before 4:20 p.m., Charles King, the chief executive officer of Housing Works, told CNN on Thursday. King says the nonprofit is hoping to have a total of three marijuana dispensaries in Manhattan by the end of 2023.

“I don’t know that we’re actually going to be able to serve everyone in the three hours that we’re open,” King said. “People are eager.”

New York state has contracted with various laboratories to test all cannabis products to be sold for adult recreation, King says. The biggest challenge, he adds, was finding enough products to sell.

Patrons must show their state or federal identification to make a purchase at the dispensary.

“We’re required by regulation to card everyone who enters the store to make sure they’re over the age of 21 and take documentation that we’ve actually done that carding,” King said.

Kenneth Woodin, who waited in line to enter the store for four hours, told CNN affiliate ABC 7, “I want to be part of history. I like the idea of regulated weed.”

A fast-growing industry

The federal ban on marijuana has not slowed down one of the fastest-growing industries in the United States. More than two-thirds of US states have legalized cannabis in some capacity. California was the first to legalize medical marijuana in 1996. Since then, the medical use of cannabis has been legalized in 39 states and the District of Columbia. Recreational cannabis use is legal in DC and 21 states.

Ballot measures in Missouri and Maryland to legalize recreational marijuana passed in the 2022 midterm elections, as momentum has grown nationwide to push for lifting penalties once associated with cannabis.

A poll by the Pew Research Center conducted in October found that 59% of adults believe marijuana should be legal for medical and recreational use, while 30% believe it should be legal for only medical use. However, just 10% of adults say marijuana use should not be legal, the survey found.

In October, President Joe Biden took the first significant steps by a US president toward removing criminal penalties for possessing marijuana by pardoning all prior federal offenses of simple marijuana possession, a move that senior administration officials said would affect thousands of Americans charged with that crime.

Biden has also tasked the Department of Health and Human Services and Attorney General Merrick Garland to “expeditiously” review how marijuana is scheduled under federal law.

New York’s bill follows marijuana legalization in neighboring New Jersey. In February 2021, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy signed bills to legalize and regulate marijuana use for those 21 and older, decriminalize possession of limited amounts of marijuana and clarify marijuana and cannabis use and possession penalties for those younger than 21.

Racial disparities in cannabis arrests

There are wide racial disparities in marijuana-related arrests nationwide, according to a study by the American Civil Liberties Union.

“On average, a Black person is 3.64 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person, even though Black and white people use marijuana at similar rates,” the ACLU said in a 2020 report.

“In every single state, Black people were more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession, and in some states, Black people were up to six, eight, or almost 10 times more likely to be arrested,” the report said.

Policymakers and industry members should not lose sight of how individuals, especially people of color, continue to be criminalized for activities that are now legal at the state level, Amber Littlejohn, CEO of the Minority Cannabis Business Association, previously told CNN.

“First and foremost, we need to get people out of prison, and we need to stop arresting people for doing things that folks are making lots of money doing,” Littlejohn said.

People of color also face tremendous barriers operating within the industry. Attempts have been made to create paths into the industry for those with non-violent marijuana convictions whose communities were negatively impacted from the War on Drugs. But these efforts have largely been unsuccessful due to state policies that limit licenses, fail to offer financial and business resources to people of color and that benefit deeper-pocketed multistate operators, Littlejohn says.

“I think one of the biggest problems is there seems to be an incredible disconnect between what people say they support and believe in and what [becomes law],” she said. “It’s up to us, the collective us, to be holding folks accountable.”

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