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‘What About the Little Guy?’ Asks Cannabis Advocacy Organization That Includes Medical Cannabis Giants

A coalition featuring four multimillion-dollar cannabis companies paints changing the state’s licensure authority as a civil rights issue.

6:10 PM EDT on June 28, 2023

Gwen Carr, Rev. Kirsten John Foy, and other unnamed participants in a rally for the Coalition for Access to Safe & Regulated Cannabis
(Hell Gate)

On Wednesday, the Rev. Kirsten John Foy and the activist Gwen Carr, the mother of Eric Garner, spoke into a PIX11 microphone set up in front of Governor Kathy Hochul’s office. They were there to rail against the failures of the Office of Cannabis Management’s licensing process and to call on the governor to intervene and open up licensing applications to anyone interested in applying. "Revenues that should be going back into the communities that have been harmed by the war on drugs are now missing in action. Those revenues are nowhere to be found," said Foy, a former aide to Bill de Blasio and the Rev. Al Sharpton. "Not because the commerce isn't happening, but because regulators refuse to get out of their own way." Carr echoed Foy's disappointment with the OCM and the missing revenue from the legal cannabis industry. "This money's supposed to go back into the community," she said. "It's supposed to be for the hospitals, the mentally ill, to educate the kids in the community, and that's not happening." 

Foy and Carr are far from the only people who have a gripe with the OCM's regulatory rollout. Complaints abound from farmers, would-be dispensary owners, gray market entrepreneurs looking to go legal, anyone who hates the whole vibe of weed bodegas… the list goes on.

But Wednesday's event was less of a "rally to save the cannabis industry" than it was a surreal press conference with speakers using the language of civil rights and justice to promote an agenda explicitly backed by Big Cannabis. Foy is the spokesperson for the Coalition for Access to Regulated & Safe Cannabis, a self-described “unincorporated trade organization” made up of several of the country's largest medical marijuana companies that is currently suing the OCM over alleged violations of the Marijuana Taxation and Regulation Act, or MTRA, as first reported by NY Cannabis Insider in March. 

In essence, CARSC alleges that by creating the CAURD licensing process—an explicitly social justice-oriented measure aimed at getting people who have been charged with and/or incarcerated for weed-related offenses access to the legal market before any other retailers—the OCM clogged up the licensing process and regulatory rollout to a degree that actually violates the MRTA and has blocked virtually everyone interested from entering the state's legal cannabis industry. Look a little closer at the group, however, and it becomes clear that there may be a motivating factor at play beyond a genuine love and respect for the letter of the law. CARSC is made up in large part by four companies whose interests stretch far beyond New York: Acreage Holdings, PharmaCann, Green Thumb Industries, and Curaleaf. In short, the exact kind of faceless, multimillion-dollar cannabis corporations that the law that legalized recreational cannabis in New York was explicitly written to exclude.

But you wouldn't know the groups behind CARSC if you attended Wednesday's rally, as those names were never mentioned. Behind the speakers, a row of nine or so Black New Yorkers chanted on cue and nodded as Foy and Carr spoke passionately about OCM’s role in shutting their community out of the cannabis industry. Beyond the fact that they were acting as representatives of the communities impacted by the war on drugs, how exactly these people were connected to CARSC or the event was unclear, as none of them stepped up to the microphone or identified themselves. 

Foy and Carr's speeches both hammered the OCM's licensing rollout over what they said they viewed as a deep disservice to the community. "Communities of color who have been long impacted and affected by the war on drugs are now being categorized and separated and divided by regulators who are not operating in the spirit or by the letter of the law, which established the agency’s mission," Foy said, before claiming the OCM's regulatory process has cost the state of New York "hundreds of millions of dollars" in tax revenue—a figure backed up by a recent report from CARSC that found New York lagging behind smaller states like Oregon and Michigan in terms of first-year tax revenue.

"We're here to say that the governor must step up and provide leadership in an industry that has taken a wrong turn," he continued. "It's time for a course correction. We need to have the community seizing the opportunities, not being blocked by regulators. We need to open up all the programs that are locked by the regulators who are picking and choosing who they give access to." He pointed out that the impact of cannabis prohibition extended beyond people who were charged or jailed with crimes in connection to the drug and, in a kind of random side swipe, called the smoke shops and weed bodegas illegally operating around the city "gentrification" of the cannabis industry. 

Notably, CARSC's primary, if somewhat murky, demand—that Governor Hochul take over the cannabis regulatory and licensing rollout from the OCM—does not comport with the way regulations roll out in New York state. According to the state's Division of Administrative Rules, new regulations must be made open to public comment, which means that the governor would be unable to enact a takeover without time for citizens to weigh in. 

In an interview with Hell Gate, Foy said that if the state wants to ensure that opening up all licensing applications doesn't pave the way for Big Cannabis, it's up to the state to create the runway for New York's local entrepreneurs to grow to the same level. "They have not done anything to mitigate against that threat, so if you want to mitigate against that threat, what you do is you give communities of color the same opportunities to access the same capital and the same resources that those big, white firms have. And if you're not doing that, what you're saying is, 'You can't ever grow as big as them!'"

The companies behind CARSC already scored a victory back in May that they didn't need numbers in the streets to obtain: in December, ten medical marijuana dispensaries will start selling cannabis recreationally, with twenty more expected to follow by this time next year, creating another entry point for big companies to cash in without having to bother with equity-minded licensing processes. Meanwhile, it remains to be seen if they'll continue trying to win hearts and minds with in-person demonstrations like Wednesday's. Occasionally, people walking by Hochul’s office on Third Avenue paused to listen to Foy or Carr, or to stare at a light-up truck flashing numbers compiled by CARSC that purport to show the staggering failure from the legal cannabis industry to meet tax revenue projections. But ultimately, an organic crowd failed to materialize. 

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