New York’s Cannabis Legalization Workgroup Comes to Manhattan

Manhattanites gathered last night to discuss New York’s creation of a legal adult-use cannabis market. It was the fourth Regulated Marijuana Listening Session.

Around 150 people filled the auditorium to hear two hours of public comment, the majority of which were representatives of cannabis advocacy groups and entrepreneurs. Speakers included industry hopefuls and frustrated patients, demanding everything from lower prices for medicinal cannabis, to a fair shot to make it in the industry.

Also in attendance were representatives from the Department of Health, Governor Cuomo’s Executive Chamber, and members of the workgroup tasked with drafting the legalization bill. Assemblyman Richard Gottfried and a representative from City Comptroller Scott Stringer’s office also attended; both have voiced support for legalized cannabis.

Gottfried was the first speaker of the evening. “The reason we’re all here is that there has been a dramatic change, not only in public attitude on this topic — which has actually been building for a long, long time — but also a dramatic change in the thinking of the Cuomo administration,” Gottfried said. The assemblyman also cautioned the workgroup about the complexities of regulating a new industry.

“When you create an industry, you run a real risk, even likelihood, that it will be dominated by a handful of very large corporations,” Gottfried said. “If we want to prevent that from happening, it’s not going to be easy, and it’s going to require some carefully drafted legislation and some complicated processes.”

Gottfried set the tone for what became a night of public concern over the potential that the industry will be monopolized, particularly by companies with billion-dollar coffers.

Jordyn Rosenthal, a senior associate at College and Community Fellowship, an organization that helps women transition from prison, urged the workgroup to ensure the program gave opportunities to a diverse group of entrepreneurs. “It has become a ‘white big businessmen in suits’ thing. We need to have this be inclusive to people, especially those who have criminal records and convictions,” she said. Rosenthal also weighed in on how New York should allocate tax revenue from sales: “It would be so heartbreaking and so horrible if marijuana became legalized and most of the money went back to the New York State Police Department.”

Tonya Osborne of Women Grow, an organization for women in the cannabis industry, reiterated, “This cannabis industry has the potential to be the one industry that is not dominated by wealthy white men,” adding, “if you allow to happen what has happened in our medicinal program, we will literally be selling cannabis to the highest bidder.”

Of the CEOs of companies licensed to cultivate and sell medical cannabis in New York, the majority are white men.

While the purpose of the listening session was to help the workgroup in drafting a legalization bill, many used the platform to express their frustrations with New York’s medical cannabis program. “If we look at the medical program in New York, I won’t go so far as calling it a failure, but it’s very far from a success,” said Mike Zaytsev, the founder of the cannabis advocacy group High NY. “I think it’s quite embarrassing as a New Yorker.” Zaytsev also chastised the workgroup and government representatives for coming late to the party. “I haven’t seen any members of your committee at any of our events, or engaging in the community in any meaningful way.”

Perhaps the most forceful speaker of the evening was Yolanda Alison, a medical cannabis patient and former NYPD employee who was permanently injured. Alison approached the podium with a vape pen in hand. “I’m here to tell you that I purchased this vape pen and the capsules, and the two of them together was a total of 400 dollars,” she said, describing the program as a “dictatorship” because of its high prices and strict regulations. Alison told the board that since she became a licensed patient, she’s been taken to court multiple times because she couldn’t make rent.

“This morning, Con Edison came to cut my lights off,” Alison said, as her voice cracked. “I want to be able to cultivate in the privacy of my own home. I’ve already taken a cannabis budtender course. I’ve applied to every dispensary here in New York City and I still have not received a reply from anyone,” she said. “Hopefully the job market will open up.”

Other speakers suggested the workgroup consider allowing consumption lounges for patients to safely and socially use cannabis — that suggestion was offered multiple times, particularly as a solution to the legal complications for medicinal cannabis patients in public housing.

Cuomo announced the formation of the workgroup earlier this month after a cannabis report he commissioned by the Department of Health determined the benefits of legalization outweigh the potential drawbacks. A summary of the study’s findings were distributed to attendees before the listening session began.

The next listening session will in Queens on Monday at the Jamaica Performing Arts Center, followed by stops in Brooklyn, Staten Island, and Nassau County. Tickets to the meetings, which are free, can be found here.

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