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New York Cannabis Regulators Expand Licenses to Disabled Vets, Women, Minorities

Cannabis regulators in New York state gave the green light to pass updated and expanded regulations Tuesday, signaling a more inclusive shift in the application process for licensed cannabis shops. Until now, such licenses were primarily limited to “justice-involved” people with prior convictions related to cannabis that occurred when the drug was still illegal.

Under the updated rules, “social equity” applicants, including disabled military veterans, minority and women-owned businesses, and struggling farmers, will also be eligible to apply for licenses to operate marijuana dispensaries starting on October 4th, the New York Post reports. In policy, social equity aims to ensure fairness and justice by addressing systemic inequalities and providing equal opportunities for all. It acknowledges existing disparities and works to eliminate them. But, despite all the hardships that vets endure, this label hasn’t always applied to them. The new laws acknowledge the sacrifices veterans have made and the lack of support when trying to start a business after returning to civilian life. 

In August, a group of four disabled veterans sued Governor of New York Kathy Hochul’s administration and the state Cannabis Control Board. Their lawsuit challenged the exclusion of disabled veterans from applying for the initial round of licenses, which the board focused on giving to folks with prior marijuana convictions.

“The MRTA [Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act] had already established a goal to award 50% of all adult-use licenses to social and economic equity applicants. But instead of following the law, OCM and CCB created their own version of ‘social equity’ and determined for themselves which individuals would get priority to enter New York’s nascent adult-use cannabis market,” reads a statement on behalf of the veterans bringing the legal action.

Many veterans have a passion and personal connection to cannabis for its role in treating PTSD. Back in June, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved a spending bill that includes an amendment allowing the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) doctors to recommend medical cannabis for their patients in legal states. It is slated to move forward as part of the approved legislation that funds the VA for the 2024 Fiscal Year.

“It’s about time,” said Carmine Fiore, a disabled vet and one of the plaintiffs in the case. “We finally have an equitable playing field. We are finally being prioritized — as we should have been under the law.”

The potential ramifications of the new rules on the ongoing litigation remain uncertain. Following their Tuesday meeting, the cannabis regulators involved in the lawsuit met for an executive session behind closed doors. This private talk could offer insights into their future course of action.

Fiore said while he’s now allowed to apply for the cannabis store license, it didn’t “stop the harm” from being kept from applying for a Conditional Adult- Retail Dispensary (CAURD). “They gave the justice-involved an unfair advantage,” he said.

But now, the Cannabis Control Board rules dramatically expanded the eligibility requirements for entrepreneurs applying for licenses. Cannabis farmers, cultivators, distributors, processors, and micro-businesses can now have a piece of the pie. 

New York’s legal cannabis market has faced a messy and problematic launch. While technically, there are only 23 cannabis stores statewide, nine of which are in New York City, an estimated 1,500 unlicensed smoke shops sell weed. While these legal gray areas, often more affordable stores with easy access, can be a dream come true to cannabis consumers. However, the red-tape-wrapped situation has left farmers feeling left behind, as they end up stuck with massive quantities of harvested cannabis, given the limited means of legal sale.  

But on Tuesday, state officials said they plan to fix that and expand the cannabis market. 

“Today marks the most significant expansion of New York’s legal cannabis market since

legalization, and we’ve taken a massive step towards reaching our goal of having New Yorkers being able to access safer, regulated cannabis across the state,” said Chris Alexander, executive director of the Office of Cannabis Management, reports the New York Post

“We are immensely proud to be building the fairest, most competitive cannabis industry in the nation — one that puts those most harmed by prohibition first and offers a true opportunity for all New Yorkers — not just large corporations — to compete and thrive,” he added.

Multi-state cannabis companies currently serving only New York medical marijuana patients will have the chance to expand their offerings to all New Yorkers for adult use, not solely medical, starting at the end of the year. However, several individuals and small operators raised concerns at the Tuesday meeting. They fear that such larger firms would establish dominance in the market before they could even start their operations. Many in attendance requested that state regulators postpone the entry of multi-state operators into the market.

A group backed by medical cannabis businesses welcomed the opening of the application process as a positive first step. However, they also expressed concern that the state isn’t doing enough to speed up the process of allowing them to sell recreational weed sooner.

“The rules passed today are a step forward. But until the State actually issues these licenses and these dispensaries get open and operational, New Yorkers will continue to be denied the tax revenue, safe cannabis, and equitable system they were promised,” said Kirsten Foy of the Coalition for Access to Regulated and Safe Cannabis.

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