Marijuana industry officials appointed

A budding marijuana plant. Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times/TNS

New Yorkers are waiting with bated breath for more concrete parameters within the new recreational marijuana industry after the Senate’s approval this week to appoint two leaders to the entities responsible for licensing and regulating the emerging market.

Senators approved Tremaine Wright to chair the Cannabis Control Board and Christopher Alexander as executive director of the Office of Cannabis Management during an extraordinary session Wednesday called by Gov. Kathy Hochul to extend the state’s eviction and foreclosure moratorium.

“One of my top priorities is to finally get New York’s cannabis industry up and running — this has been long overdue, but we’re going to make up for lost time,” Hochul said.

Wright, a former Brooklyn assemblywoman who chaired the state Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Legislative Caucus, is the first director in the state Financial Services Office of Financial Inclusion and Empowerment. She is an attorney and former small business owner.

Alexander is a former policy Senate staffer who also worked in the cannabis sector.

“These two individuals bring a wealth of knowledge and experience to their new roles, and I know they will do a tremendous job of outlining and implementing regulations that are safe, fair and transparent, and that recognize the need to remedy the impact that prohibition has had on communities of color,” Hochul said. “I look forward to working with them on building our state’s cannabis industry and effecting real change for New Yorkers.”

The Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act, signed into law March 31, legalized recreational marijuana use for adults 21 years of age and older and immediately expunged marijuana-related convictions from New Yorkers’ records.

The new control board and management office were created under the law, but the Executive Chamber and lawmakers did not make appointments to either entity until Wednesday.

The Control Board will consist of five members with three appointed by the governor, including the chair, and one appointment by each of house of the Legislature. The Advisory Board will have 13 voting members with seven appointed by the governor and two from each legislative chamber.

Officials estimated the state’s first adult-use sales would begin 18 months after the MRTA was signed into law last spring, making New York the 15th to legalize recreational marijuana. Without appointments to the controlling entities, the process was delayed an additional five-and-a-half months, minimum, as other board positions wait to be filled.

Dr. Stacia Woodcock, dispensary manager at Curaleaf, said it’s a misconception marijuana sales will imminently begin after legalization.

“This is pretty par for the course with how legalization rolls out,” Woodcock said. “It’s the same timeline for other states.”

The Cannabis Control Board and Office of Cannabis Management will create and implement production, licensing, packaging, marketing and selling regulations for the state cannabis adult-use, hemp and medical marijuana industries.

The OCM will also oversee the state’s existing Medical Marijuana Program, certified patients, caregivers and practitioners are currently regulated by the state Health Department.

“Specifically, with adult-use regulations, no state has gotten it all ‘right,’ however, there are positives we can learn from regulations across the county, both good and bad,” said Patrik Jonsson, Curaleaf’s regional president for the Northeast, noting California’s strong testing of plant and products and New Jersey’s significant wholesale market.

“To jump-start the industry, the state needs to allow existing operators to get stood up early with the adult-use program so they can start developing the initial foundation of the program, including payments to support social equity applicants and ensuring adult-use product for those new businesses to sell,” he said. “Existing medical operators already have cultivation sites that can help produce adult-use products, while maintaining the integrity of the medical market. From there, the existing operators, state regulators, and new social equity applicants should collectively work on developing a support system that will allow social equity applicants to thrive, and exceed the volume of early operators.”

State regulators should allow expanded product formats to encourage people to purchase cannabis from regulated dispensaries as opposed to the black market, Jonsson said.

The MRTA includes provisions to expand the Medical Marijuana Program and the OCM is developing regulatory framework necessary to implement these changes, but few details of the expansions are known to date.

Doctors can certify New Yorkers to become medical marijuana patients under a list of qualifying conditions, which include several to aid with chronic pain, such as migraine headaches, arthritis and menstrual cramps.

“Looking at the list, they may not think ‘the arthritis in my hands falls under chronic pain,’” Woodcock said.

The new state entities will further expand the qualifying conditions for medical marijuana. Updated qualifiers are expected to permit medical marijuana for any condition a doctor may deem will benefit the patient.

Access to whole flower cannabis products are not permitted under the state’s current medical marijuana program, first established in 2018.

“We’ve been getting tons of phone calls — people think that the law is passed and it means they can immediately come in and purchase, but we have to explain it’s going to be a year if not more,” Woodcock said. “But they don’t need to wait. They can get a medical card.”

Woodcock, a pharmacist, said New Yorkers can utilize a robust medical marijuana program, and do not have to wait for federally and state regulated dispensaries to open next year before having access to cannabis.

“The qualifying conditions are a lot more lenient than people might think,” she said, and encouraged anyone interested to inquire with their primary care physician.

The law calls for a five-member board to oversee the creation and implementation of the Office of Cannabis Management and to appoint a chief equity officer who will develop a social equity plan to prioritize participation of women- or minority-owned businesses, service-disabled veterans and small farm operators in an underrepresented demographic.

Alexander formerly served as Senate counsel and a Drug Policy Alliance staffer who helped draft the MRTA to ensure opportunities for participation by communities historically impacted by prohibition.

The alliance strongly supported Wright and Alexander’s appointments.

“We applaud the nominations of Chris Alexander ... and former Assemblymember Tremaine Wright,” Drug Policy Alliance Executive Director Kassandra Frederique said. “They both understand the deep harm that criminalization has caused to individuals and communities – especially communities of color — across the state. Their past work has reflected a commitment to working with people who have been directly impacted by prohibition and demonstrated a belief in evidence-based policies that center equity and justice.”

Agriculture Committee Chair Sen. Michelle Hinchey, D-Saugerties, was pleased to vote to appoint Wright and Alexander to launch the state’s recreational cannabis program — the most equitable and diverse in the nation, she said.

“This industry will foster economic growth for our municipalities and financial stability for upstate farmers, small businesses owners and working people across the state,” Hinchey said. “We have seen tremendous excitement and eagerness to get New York’s commercial cannabis program up and running, and we have a responsibility to do so as soon as possible. I look forward to our continued work to build this industry as a pillar of New York’s agricultural sector.”

The advisory board will make recommendations to the Control Board, and will administer and govern the distribution of social equity and community reinvestment grants.

“As New York creates its regulations with the focus and intention of creating opportunities for social equity applicants and areas of disproportionate impact, it will be critical that the governing body have the framework and people in place to support those initiatives once the programs come online,” Jonsson said.

Massachusetts’s legislation had similar provisions for social equity in the industry, but lacked the structure and processes to

“Collecting the money is the easy part, figuring out who gets what, when, and why is the hard part,” he said.

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