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Where Are All the Legal Weed Shops?

Photo: Gabby Jones/Bloomberg via Getty Images

New York’s legal weed rollout has been a mess. More than two years since cannabis was legalized in the state, only 26 dispensaries, and just 11 of them in New York City, have actually opened their doors. (Metaphorically, at least, since some of them are delivery only.) This is far fewer than the 150 dispensaries that were supposed to be in place by this past summer. The first phase, which was meant to prioritize people with cannabis-related convictions, hit a number of snags: The application process itself was complicated. A state-investment fund to help get the first batch of shops off the ground was delayed for months. And then came the lawsuits.

The Office of Cannabis Management opened up applications to the wider public this month, and there are already hangups there as well: As The City reported this week, a little-noticed provision in the law requires applicants to notify their community boards about their proposed business location at least 30 days before applying — and now those boards have been flooded with applications that they have to sift through in a month’s time. “You’re gonna have OCM people processing a 30-day extension from 59 boards for every damn application,” one community board district manager told the publication. “Is this not the craziest thing you’ve ever heard of?”

To better understand why it’s taken so long to get stores up and running, we spoke to Lorraine Collins, the director of the Center for Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research at University of Buffalo who was also part of the original working group of stakeholders convened by Andrew Cuomo to give feedback on legislation, about the ins and outs of New York’s legal weed rollout.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Can we start with the retail delays? 
Let’s be real: Once the law was passed, there was the expectation among the population of New York that, oh, the law was passed in March, so in April, we’re going to have retail. People had this expectation of instant access. I think from a PR perspective, there could have been better messaging.

So the intention was to prioritize CAURD licenses for people who were impacted by the cannabis justice system, but implementing that was a different story.   
New York went about this with the best of intentions. They didn’t just want to open the floodgates, which we’ve seen other states do. Once Big Cannabis comes in, they’re going to overwhelm the smaller operations. So the notion of an early phase to the licensing on paper was a good one. But often there’s this disconnect between legislation that’s written and what happens on the ground. And this is kind of a classic case of that. So they had the CAURD licenses and that started to move again, but not as quickly as people hoped because there was no infrastructure for cannabis when the law was passed. The Office of Cannabis Management literally had to be created out of essentially very little. The implementation is where things really went off the rails.

What were some of those issues?
People went to court to basically seek restraining orders on the CAURD licenses. That has been a huge problem. So this past summer, for example, a New York State Supreme Court judge put a restraining order on licenses as a result of a case brought by military veterans, because even though they were on the list, they didn’t feel like they were being considered. We also have this opt-in, opt-out component of the law. On paper it seemed like a good idea — let’s allow communities to opt in or opt out. But it got complicated and messy. For example, upstate there are towns that have villages within them. So we have the village of Hamburg within the town of Hamburg. And you would find that the village said no, but the town said yes.

That seems like a nightmare.
And then there were zoning issues. For those who opted in, where is the retail going to be placed? Yes, there are rules about proximity to schools and churches and what have you, but a lot of communities wanted the cannabis retail to be in the equivalent of what I’ll call a red-light district. They wanted them on the strip malls with the gentleman’s clubs and the retailers are saying no.

Are there things that you think that the state and OCM should have been able to foresee or have done differently?
I have respect for the ideas that did not work for whatever reason, including litigation that no one anticipated. Maybe they shouldn’t have made such a complicated law to begin with, but that ship has sailed. So we just have to hope that the steps moving forward can be implemented in a timely fashion. I think there should be more communication with key stakeholders.

Given that there are only a small number of dispensaries open right now, what have these delays actually meant for communities who were supposed to be first in line?
One of the things is that people got cultivator licenses and grew cannabis anticipating that they were going to be able to get that cannabis processed and sold in retail outlets. And then we had all these hiccups with the retail licensing. So now you have people who have invested in cultivation who have no market because given federal laws, if you grow it in New York, legally, you’re not supposed to sell it elsewhere. So that becomes an issue because you can’t just sit on cannabis.

It goes bad.
It’s going to degrade. There will be mold. So these poor cultivators are stuck with the harvested crops that they could not sell.

And what about the retailers?
As you said, we still have very few retailers. I think that will change if there’s no litigation with the new licensing, but there’s still issues that have to be resolved at the state and at the local level — where are these things located? What kind of zoning do we need? It’s very difficult for people to negotiate all the guidelines. At the university, we’ve held community activities around cannabis, and the most recent one was given by a local law firm that focuses on cannabis. And I came out of that with a headache. Seriously. How are people supposed to understand all of this? We’re talking about people who either for educational, socioeconomic, or legal reasons have been disadvantaged. How are they supposed to follow all of this so that they don’t get into trouble? The New York law is among the most complex in the United States. We got all tangled up in legalities and I think to some extent missed some of what we thought might happen around social justice.

It sounds maze-like. 
I’ve seen gatherings of people who are CAURD licensees continue to express frustration with the implementation and with complicated regulations that seem to get in the way. So they think they have a way forward then it turns out, no, there’s this other thing you need to do. I think OCM is for the most part responsive and wants the thing to work. They’re trying to implement best practices and I’ve seen them at community forums and Q&As really trying. So I give them credit for that.

Even just one example I saw recently was that the requirement to notify community boards has meant they’re now flooded, which has added a bunch of delays. Do you think these are things that could have been avoided or thought about a little more?
Oh, of course it could have been thought about a little more. I mean, once we had this opt-in opt-out, the communities that were opting in should have received instructions about, Here are the issues that you need to consider. I’m not aware of what instructions they got, but my impression is not much of anything because I’ve heard communities saying, we don’t know. Now they’re being asked to consider different locations and zoning changes, and people are up in arms about where retail is located and what have you. They’re scrambling.

It seems way less complicated to sell, say, alcohol.
They just extended the hours when alcohol can be sold. But alcohol does more harm than cannabis. So the researcher in me is saying, What? And meanwhile, we’re kind of creating all these barriers to access to cannabis, which has properties that are medicinal, which does not create the level of harm that alcohol creates.

Right, and actually the delays have meant that in the meantime, the cannabis black market has been thriving. 
To me that has been the worst part of all these delays with implementation and all these court cases. We should be trying to shut all of that down, but instead it’s flourishing because people have the notion that, Oh, cannabis is legal now, and they’re not thinking the next thought of, I should make sure I get my cannabis from a licensed retail outlet. Because guess what? There are no licensed retail outlets in their community. One of the reasons that I very much support the legal regulation of cannabis is for safety. A regulated product is tested. The dosage is clear. Otherwise you don’t know if what you’re getting is 3 percent THC or 80 percent THC.

Since the smaller retailers were supposed to get a head start, but many have been delayed, is there a fear of what might happen when big retailers start coming in?
What I worry about is when the national, and in some cases international, brands get a foothold in New York, and they can overwhelm the smaller retail outlets with the variety of products and the competitive pricing. It’s going to be an uneven playing field, especially in areas like New York City. I think in a rural or small-town community, they’ll probably disregard those areas since there’s not as much money to be made. But in the five boroughs, the Big Cannabis industry is just drooling, waiting to get in.

Where Are All the Legal Weed Shops?