ALBANY — Eric Garner’s mother and Sean Bell’s parents are among a group of advocates hoping to become potential pot entrepreneurs.
While the state prepares for the first legal recreational cannabis sales later this year, a coalition of activists that includes Gwen Carr as well as Valerie and William Bell have joined forces with Brooklyn’s Rev. Kirsten Foy to push for an accelerated expansion of New York’s medical marijuana market with a focus on minority involvement.
The group sent a letter to the state’s Cannabis Control Board last week calling on regulators to ”right the wrongs of history and to open up New York’s medical marijuana program to minority-owned operators and to enable low-income and minority communities to reap the health benefits of medical cannabis.”
Foy, Carr, the Bells and a dozen others have joined together to create an LLC, dubbed Equity Equality, and they plan to apply for a medical marijuana license should the state open up the process for new applicants.
The Office of Cannabis Management has taken strides toward ensuring the soon-to-begin adult-use cannabis market focuses heavily on equity, recently reserving the first batch of dispensary licenses for business owners with past pot convictions.
However, New York’s existing medical program currently consists of only 10 companies, none of which are minority-owned.
“The state owes communities of color the opportunity to compete fairly,” Foy told the Daily News. “The state has a moral, social, political and economic obligation to Black and brown residents.”
The founder of the Arc of Justice nonprofit also notes that a majority of the state’s 38 operational medicinal dispensaries are located in “affluent white neighborhoods and are neither accessible nor convenient to low-income minority communities.”
The group behind Equity Equality hopes to change that with a business model focusing on low-income and Black and brown communities.
The enactment of the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act in 2021 legalized the consumption of cannabis across the state and set the stage for New York’s nascent recreational program, expected to be up and running by the end of this year.
Social and economic equity are at the heart of the new law, which focuses heavily on encouraging people disproportionally impacted by the drug war to become involved in the budding industry, something other states have struggled with.
The sweeping law also directs the Cannabis Control Board to open up the medical program to allow for additional providers that “reflect the diversity of the state and provide medicinal cannabis products to communities currently being underserved,” according to OCM spokesman Aaron Ghitelman.
In recent months, the board has already approved several changes to the medical program, first started in 2016, including expanding eligible conditions, allowing the sale of whole flower medical cannabis products and permanently waiving the $50 patient registration fee.
Foy says while those changes are welcome, he believes the state has been slow to address disparities in the existing system and has fallen short of providing minorities the opportunity to secure “generational wealth” as access to cannabis expands.
The state’s adult-use program divvies up the industry so that different entities will grow, distribute and sell legal weed, an effort meant to encourage equity, lower barriers to entering the field and prevent larger corporate cannabis companies from cornering the market.
The medicinal program is vertically-integrated. That means license holders are involved in the whole process from cultivation to production and retail sales, an incredibly more lucrative opportunity than just operating a dispensary or farm.
Expanding the number of medicinal licenses with the intent to include minorities and New Yorkers impacted by the criminal justice system could be a game changer, Carr told The News.
“It would be so much more of an opportunity to those of us who have always had less of an opportunity,” Carr said.
Carr has spent the years following the death of her son at the hands of an NYPD cop on Staten Island immersed in activism and advocating for social and racial justice.
New York’s cannabis industry and the law’s focus on equity present the perfect path toward righting longstanding wrongs, she added.
“It’s just so unfair, so unbalanced as it is. It’s time for us to take a stand,” Carr said. “If they can create generational wealth with the medical marijuana, why not let others in also.”
Should the group behind the push be awarded a medicinal license, Carr and Foy say they are committed to locating cultivation and retail facilities in minority and underserved communities.
Ghitelman said recent regulations approved by the Cannabis Control Board that will be submitted for public comment would allow the state to begin to undertake the process of reopening up the licensing process.
“The Office is working toward the further expansion of the medical program and will continue to follow the goals of the MRTA and particularly those that set a national standard for building a truly equitable and inclusive industry,” he said.