In 2021, New York passed the nation’s most equitable adult-use cannabis legislation. After eight years of development, the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA) is designed to right the wrongs of a century of failed prohibition and provide the infrastructure for a market where small businesses can succeed and thrive, and consumers can be assured of safe and legal products.
Over the last two years, the state Cannabis Control Board (CCB) and the Office of Cannabis Management (OCM) have been rolling out the program in a way that is consistent with that legislation. But now ongoing lawsuits over the Conditional Adult-Use Retail Dispensary (CAURD) license are putting the future of an equitable cannabis market for New York in jeopardy. As the primary sponsors of the MRTA, we feel we must clarify the intent behind the bill in light of these lawsuits.
MRTA granted CCB and OCM the authority to establish rules and regulations to facilitate opening the new cannabis market as quickly as possible while delivering on the promise to create pathways for those most affected by decades of prohibition. The CCB used that authority to create the CAURD license opportunity for disproportionately impacted individuals, an action that was fully consistent with the intent of the MRTA and does not in any way contradict the statute. As the 15th State to legalize adult-use cannabis, we had the advantage of learning from mature markets. One of the lessons we learned from other states is that special licensing programs – like CAURD – are essential to providing entrepreneurs with limited access to capital a chance to succeed in the new market.
The intent behind the language at issue in the lawsuits, which states that all initial retail license applications be opened “at the same time,” was not to impose an administrative straitjacket on the OCM. It was intended to ensure that equity would lead rather than prioritizing existing medical operators who already have dispensaries and who in every other state – before New York – were allowed to start selling first.
Clearly, the CAURD program created by the CCB fits the intent and spirit of the law. That is why the Legislature has repeatedly recognized and supported this program, as we did by allocating $50M in last year’s state budget to cover capital costs associated with establishing conditional adult-use cannabis retail dispensaries for operation by social equity licensees.
The CCB and OCM are now actively preparing to open the application period for general licenses. These opportunities will be available to all, while maintaining the prioritization of social and economic equity applicants such as distressed farmers, service-disabled veterans, minority and women-owned businesses, and individuals from communities disproportionately impacted by the enforcement of cannabis prohibition.
Despite, or perhaps because of, our clear intention that cannabis be a vehicle for social equity and restorative and economic justice, national corporate interests are working diligently to hold New York’s market hostage. They are doing this under the guise of fairness. But the “Coalition for Access to Regulated & Safe Cannabis” is actively harming the exact same individuals who lost their freedom and countless opportunities because of racially motivated enforcement practices that did nothing but keep Black and brown communities in poverty. These corporate behemoths are ignoring the will of democratically elected legislators by asking the courts to move the goalposts because their lobbying efforts failed to produce their desired outcomes.
The MRTA was not just a bill to end prohibition – it was a powerful piece of legislation intended to right decades of wrongs. We were deliberate in our approach and remain steadfast in our commitment to those who suffered the most under cannabis prohibition. Yet instead of supporting our work to fix historical injustices and allow those who paid the highest price for New York’s drug laws to finally reap some reward, corporate interests are swooping in to try to stuff their pockets, regardless of the cost. They must not be allowed to cause any more harm to those New Yorkers – farmers, small business owners, struggling communities – who will benefit from a thriving, equitable cannabis market.
Liz Kreuger is a NYS Senator representing the 28th District on the East side of Manhattan. Crystal Peoples-Stokes is the NYS Assembly Majority Leader representing 141st District on the East side of Buffalo, including the community impacted by the tragic 5/14 Tops Markets mass shooting. Both sponsored and passed the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA) in March 2021.