New York’s legal cannabis industry is starting to come to life more than a year after the state legalized it.

Those who want to lead the way have been selling marijuana for generations. People who have been part of the cannabis industry long before talks of legalizing it are considering part of the ‘Legacy Cannabis Market.’

Now they are navigating how to become licensed and legal without losing everything they have already worked for.

“Knowing that we were free now and we weren’t going to be locked up for who we were, you live your whole life as that and one day you wake up and they say that’s no more, it’s one of the best feelings in the world,” Grant Atkins, from the Green Coalition, said.

Atkins says when cannabis was legalized in 2021, he felt like he would no longer have to hide who he really was. He says cannabis is a culture he’s been a part of since he was young.

“It’s passed down like, ‘this is what Black joy looks like.’ We’re together, we eat, we play cards, we laugh and there’s smoke in the air,” Atkins said.

But the criminalization of marijuana led to the arrest of thousands of users over generations. Atkins says he witnessed the negative impact of that.

“That feeds mass incarceration which breaks homes, which creates trauma, and destabilizes the family structure, which destroys the community,” Atkins said.

The New York Office of Cannabis Management, which has the job of setting rules and regulations regarding the budding cannabis industry, say its goal is to, "encourage members from communities disproportionally impacted by the policies of prohibition to participate in the new industry." ​

It has done this so far by giving licenses to people wanting to start dispensaries who have been affected by prior marijuana laws and have a developed business background. But what is considered a business background and does it include those who’ve been part of the legacy market?

Eunice Johnson Day, also with the Green Coalition, says people aren’t confident they’ll be considered.

“People are afraid to come out because they don’t trust it,” Day said. “They want people to come out, especially legacy, they want you to come out of the wood work and give all this information but no promise of a license. Therefore these people who have been functioning underground for years, they have all their businesses to the IRS, to the police, to everything.”

That’s why Atkins says the Green Coalition exists.

“Because you can get involved, have input, be kept current on what’s going on and your identity is protected by the coalition,” Atkins said.

They meet every week with others in the community who want to advocate for the legacy market, like Joshua Waterman, founder of the Legacy Growers Association.

“One of the first times I wanted to start an organization to help these people, there were these two young kids they were selling their cannabis, they were getting donations for their cannabis,” Waterman said. “And the look on these boys’ faces was like they had never smiled that way before because they were so proud and so passionate about what they were doing and being able to show the world, look I’m Legacy and this is what I do and live by, but I can show you and I’m not afraid of that.”

Now these organizations are working together to make sure they and others in the legacy market get the resources, licenses and support they feel they deserve from the state and city as they take on the risks that comes with going legal.

“Legacy wants to do the right thing, and Legacy are good people,” Waterman said. “We’ve been painted in society, these people have been painted a very bad color for a very long time. So legacy wants to take that sacrifice to show that we should be in this industry, we are the rightful people to be in this industry.”