Initially, the state Office of Cannabis Management gave them priority. Now, New Yorkers with a past marijuana conviction who received the state's first licenses to sell adult-use marijuana say they feel left behind as the state agency looks to the industry's future.

Lafonso Bonner addressed members of the Cannabis Control Board on Friday, asking for more guidance from the state Office of Cannabis Management to open his Capital Region dispensary, Mister Greens, in Saratoga Springs.

“We were awarded a license July 19 and it feels like we've been forgotten about,” Bonner said.

Bonner is one of more than 460 people who got a license to legally sell cannabis last year under the Conditional Adult-Use Retail Dispensary program — prioritized for people with past marijuana convictions. He continues to wait for local approvals needed to submit the final plan to the state to get the green light for the store to open.

“We've had a really hard time getting a human being on the phone and getting questions answered through email,” Bonner said. "...I think their attention maybe has been diverted a little bit from the people who were awarded a license. Don't forget about us."

Board members Friday voted to allow New York adults to grow cannabis at home and to approve 109 licenses for adult-use retailers and processors and new research licenses. The regulations are subject to a 60-day public comment period before taking effect. 

New Yorkers 21 and older can grow up to six plants — including three mature and three immature plants — with no more than 12 plants per household. 

Immature plants can be sold to consumers by dispensaries and micro businesses, building on existing regulations for medical marijuana patients and caregivers. 

“We’re doing public education, we’re doing advancing research in a way that nobody’s ever done, so it’s a lot going on here,” Office of Cannabis Management Executive Director Chris Alexander told Spectrum News 1.

Friday’s meeting marked the board’s first actions of the year. The board abruptly canceled its January meeting after Gov. Kathy Hochul expressed immense displeasure with the Office of Cannabis Management’s plan to approve three licenses, and the agency’s slow actions since legal challenges that stalled the market rollout were settled last fall.

But as the board moves on to develop the recreational marijuana industry beyond dispensaries, Bonner said he feels the state agency is leaving behind CAURD and Social & Economic Equity applicants who need more assistance, and he isn’t alone.

Several at Friday’s meeting said they have repeatedly contacted OCM for help without a response. One man attended the meeting, held at Hudson Valley Community College in Troy, to get contact information for the agency for a friend from Queens who aspires to open a dispensary. The hopeful cannabis retailer is Dominican and would likely be given priority as a Social & Economic Equity applicant, but has had no luck contacting the state agency for guidance.

“This is unique what we did here in New York… but do not forget about the social equity people,” the man said to the board during the meeting’s public comment period. “Right now, my friend needs help. And he has nobody to contact.”

Alexander said the agency is working to be more responsive, and that the agency is working through a learning curve in developing processes as the industry gets off the ground. 

“We’re doing the things we’re doing for the first time,” Alexander said.

OCM officials are working with CAURD licensees who need assistance opening their stores, according to the executive director. OCM has 32 staff members dedicated to reviewing the thousands of waiting applications, and a handful of staff assigned to assist licensees.

“There’s humans working here, too, to be responsive and to be prompt and give responses… but that, sometimes, is a process,” Alexander said.

The executive director said most of the 6,800 applications have discrepancies, or missing or incorrect information, which slows down the application's review process.

During the meeting, board member Jennifer Gilbert Jenkins said she has received many emails since the new year with complaints from people who have not succeeded in getting in contact with OCM or a response. Gilbert Jenkins also questioned her fellow board members about many applicants who remain confused and frustrated with the board's plans to issue under 1,000 licenses of the 6,800 applications for a retail dispensary from a randomized lottery system — about 1,500 of those have already secured a storefront location.

She implored the board to continue reviewing the applications on a rolling basis throughout the year.

"I think that we have more than 7,000 liquor stores in this state, and I think that we probably have more than 7,000 illegal stores in this state," Gilbert Jenkins said.

Alexander continues to argue OCM is cautious about over-issuing licenses the market cannot sustain.

"Despite not having license caps, we have a limited license market," Alexander said. "So no, not everybody is going to get a license. The state cannot support 7,000 dispensaries, and I think that dispensary operators would not want to step into a business in which there are 7,000 dispensaries that are not viable.

"...In order to ensure that this equity experiment works, we have to both prioritize and ensure that the businesses that the people are paying opportunities for, that those opportunities won't be wasted," he added.

Gov. Hochul has publicly expressed her displeasure with OCM several times in recent weeks, and reiterated them Friday.

“I’m not satisfied,” Hochul told reporters at an unrelated event in Buffalo.

The governor is focused on closing thousands of illegal marijuana dispensaries operating around the state, which continue to pose one of the largest obstacles to a healthy supply of legal shops.

Hochul proposed to allow municipalities to padlock illicit stores and impose civil fines that would boost local law enforcement resources to crack down on the thriving black market.

Alexander said the agency continues to meet with the Second Floor daily.

"Every day — multiple times a day," he said. "They've been acknowledging the challenge that this is and just pushing us to get this market up and running. The governor wants to see the market succeed, so it's just about understanding that there are plenty of different pressure points including the illicit shops, including eagerness of people to get involved."

Hochul has floated changing OCM leadership, or the structure of the agency's power structure, but gave the agency grace Friday noting the recent legal delays.

“If a judge had not agreed with the lawsuits trying to shut us down we’d be much further along," Hochul said. "Hopefully this time next year, we’ll look back and understand that standing up a brand new industry is always going to be challenging, but we’re going to get it right.

But Alexander says the agency and board are working together to improve the complicated rollout. 

“I think that, you know, truly, we need to do a better job," Alexander said. "I need to do a better job of managing expectations on timeliness of certain things. Because with some of these newer processes, you know, we’re working out the kinks as we go."