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How the Cannabis Industry Defeated Legalization in New York

April 4, 2019
Don't blame Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Legalization failed in New York because the industry didn't put equity first. (CSA Images/iStock)

‘The Haymaker’ is Leafly Deputy Editor Bruce Barcott’s opinion column on cannabis politics and culture.

The cannabis industry’s equity problem has long been a ticking time bomb. This week it finally exploded.

In Albany, a legalization measure that once seemed as unstoppable as a locomotive ran completely off the rails. The push to include adult-use cannabis legalization in the New York Legislature’s 2019 state budget package officially died on Monday.

Here’s the new math. No social equity = no legalization and no marketplace.

As Leafly’s Max Savage Levenson reported, death resulted from multiple causes—bickering over taxes, conservative lawmakers catching a case of cold feet, law enforcement pushback, even a corporate-backed plot to ban homegrow. But in the end, even the most ardent legalization advocates couldn’t defend the package’s weak tea equity measures.

Those same legislators warned months ago that there would be “no legalization without social equity.” Hat-tip to Leafly contributor Sara Brittany Somerset for surfacing that back in December. She quoted Crystal Peoples-Stokes, the majority leader of the New York State Assembly, who was very clear about what she needed to see in a legalization measure:

“Equity in a regulated adult use market starts with separating licenses, providing an affordable licensing process, offering low-interest loans, and prioritizing opportunities to people historically disenfranchised and imprisoned as a result of the war on drugs.”

As Somerset wrote: “The bottom line according to Peoples-Stokes: Adult-use marijuana will not be implemented in New York State if it is not inclusive of equity.” The majority leader was not joking.

But apparently others weren’t listening. Cannabis companies, dazzled by the prospect of adult-use legalization in a state with 20 million people, seemed only concerned about locking up licenses and monopolizing market share. They ignored the calls for equity clauses and criminal record expungement. They didn’t listen to experienced thought leaders like Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commissioner Shaleen Title or the leaders of the Minority Cannabis Business Association, both of whom have issued best-practices policy guidances that address these issues.

Result: Cannabis companies got neither their licenses nor adult-use legalization. In past years, legalization advocates were willing to back-burner social equity requirements in order to get legalization adopted. Just pass the measure, went the thinking. We can improve and perfect it later.

No more. We’ve seen what happens: no improvement, no perfection.

Here’s the new math in 2019. No equity = no marketplace.


New Yorkers Declare: No Legalization Without Social Equity

Equity Matters to Politicians

Why did equity and expungement mean so much to leaders like Crystal Peoples-Stokes? Because those aren’t merely concepts to many of her constituents in Buffalo. Their lives were derailed by the racist war on drugs. And she’s seen equity and expungement programs in other states ignored, unfunded, understaffed, and shunted off to the basement of afterthought programs.

In past years, legalization advocates were willing to abandon tough equity requirements in order to get legalization passed. Not anymore.

Look at the wreckage. In California last week, the Bureau of Cannabis Control’s social equity grant program came to a mysterious halt. Or pause. Or reset. Nobody’s quite sure. Even John Schroyer over at MJBiz Daily is baffled, and that guy knows everything. California’s got $10 million in grant money available but no way for anyone to apply for it.

Meanwhile, the City of Los Angeles seems to have its own $10 million available for cops to crack down on unlicensed cannabis stores, but not a dime to spare for the city’s cannabis social equity program. Cat Packer, head of LA’s Department of Cannabis Regulation, has been fighting tooth and claw since early 2018 to get a coffee maker and a copy machine, let alone social equity money. Meanwhile, the LAPD sneezes and the city council tosses it 10 large.

This has not been lost on the people fighting the good fight in New York. They are no fools. Kassandra Frederique, head of the Drug Policy Alliance’s New York office, connected the dots in a single tweet:

That’s Not a Good Look

Know what also matters? Dollars and optics. And here again the cannabis industry—though there are exceptions—has lately come up Scrooge-fisted and obtuse.

In mid-March, while legalization and social justice advocates were busting their butts in Albany, former US House Speaker John Boehner chortled his way through an explanation of his cannabis evolution on the big stage at SXSW in Austin, Texas.

Evolving on cannabis is always a net good. That’s how progress happens in human society. But the optics of Boehner, a man who directly pushed and funded the war on drugs, watching his Acreage Holdings investment multiply while others still sit in prison, were enough to make a lot of us squirm.


SXSW cannabis headliner draws crowds and protest

Who’s Playing Who Here?

As the Boehner Q&A unfolded, legalization advocates like Jax Finkel, executive director of Texas NORML, worked the halls of the statehouse a couple miles away, her chapter surviving on a shoestring budget. When I spoke with her in the bowels of the capitol building in late February, Finkel sounded perplexed by the lack of financial support advocates like herself had received (or rather, not received) from cash-flush industry players.

Finkel didn’t say it, but the question has occurred to a number of people: Are these cannabis capitalists just playing the grassroots advocates for chumps? Right now the answer is yes. They’re letting the activists spend blood, sweat, and tears, holding tight to their bags of cash until the legal market opens. Then, as they say in Texas, Katy bar the fucking door.


The Roll-Up Bonus Episode: Cannabis in Texas

This has got to change or there will be more New York debacles in 2019 and 2020. Adult-use legalization is now being seriously considered by legislators in Connecticut and Illinois. New Jersey—which has its own set of unique issues—will take it up again soon. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolfe says he’s open to a serious consideration of adult-use legalization.

Those are big states. Big markets. And they may remain closed as long as the cannabis industry refuses to take into consideration anything other than its own pockets.


The Roll-Up #81: Oklahoma Just Lapped New York

Bruce Barcott's Bio Image

Bruce Barcott

Leafly Senior Editor Bruce Barcott oversees news, investigations, and feature projects. He is a Guggenheim Fellow and author of Weed the People: The Future of Legal Marijuana in America.

View Bruce Barcott's articles

  • familyguy

    This article is quite wrong. I don’t think politician give a rats ass as to who sits in prison. The expungements of records has happened in other states after legalization equity and people-stokes had a agenda and I bet big pharma and conservative politicians that obtain money from big pharma had a lot to do with the legalization stalling. I would advise people to take note of individuals like people-stokes and her accomplices and vote their asses out!

    • iRaHuman

      Why should they be voted out. Who else would fight to enjoin everyone, this includes minorities and women, who have been left out, once again, from getting their just rewards for fighting so you could get high. Beware of people who want to find a schism to break us apart. We need to find “Soul-U-tions”, so all will enjoy the fruits of all our labor.

    • ticobird

      The concept of social equity with respect to cannabis legalization is more than just criminal record expungement or release from jail. It also includes the ability of these same wronged individuals to a legally protected means of participating in the newly enabled state cannabis industry.

    • Kevin …

      People Stokes is exactly who we want in. Someone who will tenaciously fight for the rights of regular people and stand up to the big money/lobbyists/corporations as they try to legislate normal people out of the ability to participate meaningfully in the cannabis economy. See my writing on the subject here:

  • Peter Sinanian

    It would be nice if your article included an example or two of states that did social equity right in their legalization efforts and what best practices they have used.

  • GoWiThaFlo

    Will the writers at Leafly please STOP using terms such as “defeated” and “officially died on Monday,” regarding New York’s proposed Marihuana/Cannabis Regulation and Taxation Act? Our state’s legislative process ends in June 2019. The 2014 Compassionate Care Act was approved by the state Legislature and signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo AFTER the official April 1 budget deadline. Look it up. The same could happen with this proposed adult-use bill, precisely because of strong support expressed publicly by key lawmakers and Cuomo. They need only reach agreement on such important topics as “equity.” Our drive toward legalization in New York is NOT over.

  • jontomas

    I am so sick and tired of the “marijuana business” sucking up all the reform oxygen. — One large group of politicians says “No legalization without equity provisions!” and another large group says, “No legalization with equity provisions attached!”

    Meanwhile, the REAL key stakeholders – the consumers – are pushed off to the side as if they were just an after thought. – It’s okay to let them continue to be persecuted while the “important” players are battling it out over the pie.

    The heck with that. — At this point, I’d like to just see state cultivation and state sales only, like some states have state-run alcohol stores. – The greedy sellers against legalization (GSAL) have fought against our freedom in every state that has legalized.

    We won’t get it, but I will dedicate myself to encouraging everyone I know to grow for themselves and share. — The greed has just gotten too repulsive!

  • jbc123

    Another fine job by the nitwit Liberals in New York. First they scare off Amazon and at least 25,000 jobs, now they blow legal weed sales in the name of some lame SJW bull. You fools deserve people like AOC, Hillary, and Schumer representing you. We’re not laughing with you, we’re laughing at you.

    • Paul Rossi

      Glad you don’t live here.

  • Kevin …

    Nice article. It’s essential that citizens stay informed and keep social justice alive as part of the legislation as adult use legalization moves across the United States. We’ve written about the issue in our blog here:

  • Kevin …

    Nice article! So far, there is only one state that has legalized adult use cannabis but chosen not to allow for homegrow. Don’t let New York and New Jersey add to that number. See my thoughts here:

  • Deryl

    when it comes down to it its a big sympathy ploy to get people on their side for future elections… people broke the law and should be punished for breaking the law… there is a reason for some laws.. if you like them or not they are there.. cannabis should be as legal as potatoes… but the fact of the matter is … its not… I don’t like it but that doesn’t make it legal… boo fu*kin hoo if you got caught breaking the law… do your time and hopefully its legal when you get out … you should not be released and rewarded for breaking the law just because the law was changed after the fact you broke it … If people get to cry because they are not lawful for one offense … next we will have people assaulting stupid people because they did something stupid and it will all be forgiven if some big pharma company creates a smart pill to cure stupidity…

    • Dominick Carnevale

      Laws that were made by self serving industrialists in 1937 to enrich themselves were meant to be broken. While the fukin drunks roam freely the people who choose the safer alternative go to jail? Bullship! People like you only see the light when their children or grandchildren get busted!

    • Paul Rossi

      Anne Frank was breaking the law when she went into hiding. The Gestapo who hunted her down and arrested her and sent her to her death in the concentration camp were upholding the law.

      • Deryl

        so murder is legal and hiding is illegal… awesome laws people support there….