A downtown Manhattan Community Board meeting on Monday about New York’s first legal adult use cannabis shops was, at times, tense. And while one shop was welcomed, another prompted concerns, with local leaders asking: why is one of New York’s first shops working so closely with “West Coast brands?”
On Monday evening, Community Board 2, which includes affluent neighborhoods like the West Village and SoHo, met to discuss Housing Works and The Doe Store, two nonprofits recently granted Conditional Adult Use Retail Dispensary (CAURD) licenses. Both entities have imminent plans to open cannabis shops in downtown Manhattan, steps from New York University. A number of local officials from other community boards were also in attendance.
Entities with CAURD licenses, which are reserved for “justice-involved” individuals and non-profits focused on repairing the harms of the war on drugs, will get a considerable head start in New York’s deeply anticipated adult use cannabis market. The New York Office of Cannabis Management awarded the first CAURD licenses to 36 applicants, including eight nonprofits, at its Nov. 21 meeting.
Two of those approved nonprofits were on the CB2 agenda Monday: Housing Works, a city-based nonprofit that focuses on combating AIDS and homelessness, which will have its cannabis shop located at 750 Broadway, and The Doe Store, a placeholder name for The Doe Fund’s shop, which will be located at 835 Broadway. The Doe Fund is a nonprofit that offers paid transitional work, housing, and education to people who have “histories of homelessness, incarceration, and substance abuse.”
After three hours of presentations and discussion about topics like crowd control, security, and education, Housing Works was unanimously supported. “Look at that, we just made history,” said Mar Fitzgerald, who leads the community board’s cannabis licensing committee.
The community board was much more hesitant about The Doe Store, and ultimately decided not to support their plan while providing “a path” to address each point that is in “contention” so that their approach “better suits this community,” Fitzgerald said.
Some board members expressed confusion about how best to communicate their assessment of these licensees with OCM, or what weight it holds, and Fitzgerald pointed out that that is expected, as the Board is the “first” in New York City to take this step.
Much of the discussion among the community board members ended up comparing Housing Works’ approach to The Doe Store’s. The debate was intensified by the fact that one of these two entities could end up opening the state’s first adult use cannabis shop.
Board members were pleased with Housing Works’ emphasis on educating its existing employees about cannabis, reinvesting in its mission, and hosting community events, for example. They were less pleased when Paul Yao, chief executive officer of The Doe Store, said they would work with people with experience launching stores in California, at least one tied to a cannabis company with a footprint in multiple states, known as a multistate operator, or MSO, and would partner with West Coast brands.
Arana Hankin-Biggers, chief operating officer of The Doe Fund, responded to questions about this approach by saying that many of New York’s adult use cannabis farmers were given a foot in the adult use door because they were hemp farmers who were struggling financially.
“Many of them are incredibly drained of resources and don’t have the means to be able to bring products to market. The only way they’re able to survive and thrive is by partnering with the West Coast brands,” Hankin-Biggers said, adding that these New York cultivators aren’t “being harmed” or “taken advantage of by West Coast brands.”
Hankin-Biggers added, “West Coast brands are infusing them with capital, giving them access to resources, to a knowledge base that is very new on the East Coast.”
Community board members pumped the brakes, ultimately disagreeing.
“It feels like this is exactly what it was not supposed to be. This feels MSO. This feels predatory, almost,” Fitzgerald said. “You know, big financers coming in and finding a nonprofit or a social equity applicant to hitch their wagon to. It just feels so wrong on so many levels.”
Carter Booth, a board member, said that he felt it was important to flag The Doe Fund for discussion, and asked how an entity like Housing Works, a chain of thrift stores with a much smaller budget, would compete against The Doe Fund.
“They’re approved, and everything they described is within the bounds of what’s legal, it seems,” Booth said of the Fund, adding, however, that the plan to promote outside brands is “against the spirit of everything.”
“I wonder what message one might be sending, bringing West Coast brand names and uplifting that, rather than really cultivating, pardon the pun, these New York brands and their name and really uplifting that. New York cannabis is supposed to be for New York,” Fitzgerald said.
Charles King, the chief executive officer of Housing Works, gave a presentation and fielded questions with Christina Buccola, a cannabis lawyer, about the Housing Works cannabis retail plan.
King said Housing Works is considering opening more than one shop and has looked at locations in Midtown and on the Upper West Side
“If all goes well this time, a year from now, we would be operating three retail outlets,” King said.
While board members focused on legal cannabis, questions did turn several times toward the rampant unregulated sales across New York City.
Yao said that The Doe Fund seeks to “differentiate” their products from unregulated ones, and referenced a report from northeast cannabis industry groups that found that much of the unregulated cannabis from unlicensed New York sellers contains contaminants like lead and salmonella.
Booth said that nearly 100 complaints about unregulated cannabis sales had been reported to local precincts, and suggested that the community board draft a resolution “supporting efforts to enforce the rules.”
“The overall idea of enforcement is so important to the success of this program,” Booth continued. “And it’s going to take a while. If they don’t start the enforcement more aggressively, by the time we start getting other candidates for retail storefronts, it’s still going to be a challenge for them.”
Fitzgerald agreed, adding “they need to do what they said they were going to do.”