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Long, Depressing Legal Weed Hearing Mirrors Long, Depressing Legal Weed Rollout

"Do you think we're going to be able to put this genie back into the bottle?"

A tree at the Snug Harbor Botanic Garden on Staten Island.
(Hell Gate)

On Monday, cannabis industry stakeholders and government employees gathered in Albany to talk pot at a decidedly sober joint public hearing in front of the New York State Senate's Subcommittee on Cannabis. The fact-finding hearing, called by subcommittee chair Jeremy Cooney back in September, was intended to take stock of the state's progress in building and nurturing an adult-use cannabis industry in the wake of legislation that legalized recreational weed back in 2021. It was also the first hearing like this since recreational weed got the green light in March 2021, which might explain why it stretched into an eye-watering, almost nine hours-long affair (available on YouTube in full for anyone into bureaucracy ASMR). 

What facts were found, exactly? Mainly that the state of the legal cannabis industry in New York is royally fucked up. Frustrated cannabis farmers, processors, and retailers begged for some kind of relief for an industry they say is withering on the vine thanks to a myriad of issues, including a confusing regulatory rollout, a slow licensing process recently accelerated by a lawsuit, real estate woes, an extremely limited number of retail storefronts to sell their wares, heavy taxes on cannabis products, and the proliferation of unlicensed weed vendors that have flooded the market virtually unchecked over the past few years. 

"I've never been so unstable in my life," said Jason Tantelo, cofounder of the New York Cannabis Retail Association, who noted that he's been in the cannabis industry since he was 14 years old. "We've invested everything that we possibly can invest in chasing the dream that the Office of Cannabis Management promised us." Tantelo added, "If we can't survive, we can't make money, then what are we all doing here in the first place?"

"To be honest, it's appalling, it's embarrassing," he said. "The entire United States is watching what we're doing, and it's like they're laughing at us." 

"I lost my voice this weekend stopping people and letting them know that we're open," Coss Marte, CAURD licensee and CEO of ConBud, a Lower East Side dispensary that opened nine days ago, said. "The OCM, I think they said they spent millions of dollars on ads? I really haven't seen them, and if people are putting ads up, nobody's reading them, nobody's coming to the store and saying, 'Oh, you have this sticker that's six inches tall, that's how we know you're different from this other shop.'"

Meanwhile, regulators, especially representatives from the OCM, played defense. Although government workers testified in the first half of the hearing, before the state senators heard from industry representatives, their panels stretched longer, with the OCM panel alone lasting almost two hours.  

"One anecdote that I like adding is…Washington state legalized in 2014, one of the first states to legalize, and one of the interesting things that I noticed is that it took until 2020 for them to get 90 percent of the cannabis that is consumed in Washington to be bought by the legal market," Patrick McKeage, the first deputy director of the OCM, said. "It is something that transitions over time, even in a state that didn't have the illicit market challenges that we have—it's not a switch you can flip overnight."

But it seemed clear that nobody in the room was under the impression that anyone in the cannabis regulatory sphere had the power to flip a switch and bring change to the industry right now, or any time soon. Attendees laughed when OCM Director of Investigations and Enforcement Daniel Haughney sheepishly gave his best estimate of the number of illegal weed retailers across the state—around 1,500, based on numbers from the New York City Sheriff's Office.

"Theoretically, we have at least 1,000 illicit operators out there. Do you think we're going to be able to put this genie back into the bottle to actually have a regulated marijuana distribution, or has it tipped over in a way that we're not getting it back?" State Senator Sean Ryan asked. "Not without greater coordination and collaboration" from other City and state enforcement agencies, OCM Executive Director Chris Alexander replied. 

"I feel so sorry for our farmers, because right now they're struggling, because New York state said, 'We've got something wonderful for you and we're going to be there for you,' and you know what? They're not," State Senator Mario Mattera said, ending his speaking time before anyone from the OCM could respond.

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