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First Legal Dispensary Opens in New York

In Manhattan last week, cannabis public sales began at a dispensary. These are the first public cannabis sales in New York. Housing Works Cannabis Company is the first cannabis business in the state to open its storefront. Housing Works, a non-profit organization, operates the dispensary. The store is open every day of the week, with proceeds going to Housing Works to assist people with HIV/AIDS, the homeless, and formerly incarcerated. 

New York Governor Kathy Hochul discussed the plan that started nine months ago to kickstart the cannabis market by prioritizing equity. The social and economic equity program aims to address the racial disparities in arrests for marijuana-related offenses and help those disproportionately affected by the enforcement of cannabis laws. A goal of the program is to encourage participation in the cannabis industry by issuing licenses to women or minority-owned businesses, service-disabled veterans, and distressed farmers.

New York City Mayor Eric Adams called the opening of the storefront a significant milestone in creating the most equitable cannabis industry in the country. He believes the legal market can help the economy recover by increasing local and state tax revenue, creating new jobs, and building wealth in underserved communities.

Impact of the Marijuana Regulation & Taxation Act

Former New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA) in March 2021. It legalized recreational cannabis for adult use across the state.

Adults 21 and older can possess up to three ounces of cannabis and 24 grams of cannabis concentrate. They can only purchase marijuana products from authorized sellers. The law will also allow adults to grow up to six immature and six mature plants in their homes eighteen months after the first sales began.

The legislation expunges previous convictions for cannabis-related crimes that are now legal. It also establishes the Office of Cannabis Management. This independent office, operating under the New York State Liquor Authority, will implement a regulatory framework with a two-tier licensing structure to separate processors and growers from retail store owners.

A 13 percent tax will also get tacked onto retail cannabis sales for local and state tax revenue. Cuomo’s office previously stated a regulated cannabis industry in the state has the potential to create between 30,000 and 60,000 new jobs and $350 million in annual tax collections.

The law follows legislation in neighboring New Jersey, where Governor Phil Murphy signed bills in February 2021 to legalize and regulate marijuana. The Cannabis Regulatory, Enforcement Assistance, and Marketplace Modernization (CREAMM) Act allows residents 21 and older to legally use cannabis and cannabis products. It also decriminalizes the possession of marijuana in limited amounts and clarifies penalties for possession and consumption by people under 21.

Overwhelming Response to the Grand Opening

According to Governor Hochul’s office, the Cannabis Control Board issued 36 retail licenses for adult-use marijuana on November 21, including eight for non-profit organizations and 28 for eligible businesses.

Over 2,000 people responded to Housing Works’ invitation to the grand opening of its retail location. People started waiting outside the store hours before the opening, and the line extended down the block.

Opening day showed New York City residents’ excitement about recreational cannabis sales. The chief executive officer of Housing Works discussed future plans, hoping to open three more dispensaries in Manhattan by the end of this year.

Regulations require the store to card everyone trying to enter and document the ID check. Patrons must show a valid state or federal ID to prove they are at least 21 before purchasing products. 

Support for the Cannabis Industry

Cannabis is a rapidly growing industry. Despite federal laws, marijuana is legal for recreational use in 21 states, two U.S. territories, and the District of Columbia. It is also legal for medical purposes in 37 states, the District of Columbia, and four U.S. territories.

California was the first state to legalize medical marijuana in 1996 after passing the Compassionate Use Act. In 2016, the state passed legislation for legal recreational cannabis. During the last midterm elections, two states, Maryland and Missouri, legalized recreational cannabis for adults 21 and older.

According to a Pew Research Center poll, 59 percent of adults in the United States believe marijuana should be legal for medical and recreational use. Another 30 percent say the substance should be legal only for medical use. Only ten percent are against legalization for any purpose.

The Pew Research Center took the survey shortly after President Joe Biden announced a mass pardon for prior federal charges of simple marijuana possession. He also directed Attorney General Merrick Garland and the Department of Health and Human Services to review the classification of cannabis as a Schedule I controlled substance under federal law.

Effects of Race on Cannabis-Related Offenses

According to an American Civil Liberties Union study, racial disparities are prevalent in arrests for crimes involving marijuana. Although black and white people use cannabis at similar rates, a black person is 3.64 times likelier to get arrested for marijuana possession than a white person.

Results of the study show black people are more likely to get arrested for possession in every state. In some states, black people are six, eight, or almost ten times more likely to face arrest for cannabis possession.

Industry members and policymakers must continue considering how people of color face criminalization for offenses that are legal in most states. Getting these individuals out of prison and stopping arrests for simple possession is essential.

People of color operating in the cannabis industry also face significant barriers. Despite previous attempts to facilitate a pathway for individuals with convictions for non-violent marijuana offenses, communities affected by the War on Drugs continue encountering obstacles because state policies limit financial assistance, resources, and licenses for minority cannabis business owners.

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