State officials took steps Thursday that they believe will jumpstart the adult-use marijuana industry. As expected, the Cannabis Control Board voted to advance regulations that will set aside the first round of retail licenses for those with previous marijuana convictions.

To operate one of the state’s first marijuana dispensaries, entrepreneurs must meet strict qualifications: they or a close family member must have been convicted of a marijuana offense. Non-profits that serve those offenders also qualify. It’s part of a concerted effort to prioritize those communities disproportionately harmed by the drug war.

What You Need To Know

  • State officials are creating a framework for those seeking to operate marijuana dispensaries

  • The initial batch of licenses will be reserved for those convicted of a marijuana offense, or their close family members

  • A proposed $200 million fund will also help licensees secure retail space and launch their businesses
  • The application period to win a marijuana grower’s license opens next week

“We are now breaking the mold,” said Chris Alexander, the executive director of New York’s Office of Cannabis Management. “We are taking the harder path. And it’s one that no state has done before.”

Other states have failed to meet similar goals because of the difficulties small operators face in securing funding and real estate. 

Gov. Kathy Hochul is pushing for a $200 million fund that would help licensees get their stores up and running as quickly as possible, even helping locate and build out retail space.

The state is also giving a head start to New York’s hemp farmers, who beginning next week can apply for cultivation licenses to begin growing the marijuana that will supply dispensaries.

The goal is for sales to begin by the end of the year.

“Instead of opening our market with the same existing operators who are dominating the national space, we’ve instead decided to put those who have been most impacted at the center of what we are building here,” Alexander said.

But first comes a 60-day public comment period for the new regulations, with the application period then opening this summer, and the first licenses awarded by early fall.

Alexander pointed out that in addition to their criminal history, applicants must already have experience running a business.

“These are small business owners. These are individuals who come from certain communities,” Alexander said. “It may have been the case that they were thrown up against the wall, and asked to empty their pockets, and produced a small amount of marijuana, and were saddled with a misdemeanor conviction that has been with them up until 2021.”

Advocates for marijuana legalization cheered the latest developments.

“The people that have fought for this change have been the people in New York that have been criminalized by the law, who have had their communities surveilled and punished,” said Kassandra Frederique, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance.

State officials, she said, “are really saying look, you guys get to go first. You get to go before everybody else. Because that’s actually what’s going to get us closer to fairness and equity. And I think that’s really exciting.”

As for those without criminal histories, the state expects to open applications for a second round of licenses around the end of the year.