Bronx cannabis advocates, licensees concerned over wait for legal weed dispensaries
New Yorkers excited about the recent openings of the city’s first legal weed dispensaries haven’t failed to notice they’re located in downtown Manhattan, within blocks of each other. And it looks like Queens may be next.
Which leaves a burning question for people in the city’s northernmost borough: When are Bronxites getting legal dispensaries of their own?
“The Bronx is still being left to last,” said Pilar DeJesus, a cannabis advocate. “Folks in the Bronx who may want to have access to legal weed now have to go over [to Manhattan], and I haven’t heard of what locations they were looking at in the Bronx for some of these conditional license holders to open up their business,” DeJesus added.
“For these legal dispensaries, it’s really sad that there’s not even one in the Bronx yet, and that they’re being left out in that way.”
At least seven licensees are waiting in the wings, building business plans and waiting for leases to get started, with plans to place 20 dispensaries in the Bronx under their Conditional Adult-Use Retail Dispensary, or CAURD, program. Last year, a temporary model shop opened at 149th St. and the Grand Concourse for a couple of days.
But some advocates worry that under the stress of complicated regulations, lack of education and the huge presence of illegal smoke shops, the burgeoning industry might stumble as it scrambles to stay upright. Some have noted the early concentration of shops in Manhattan means neighborhoods in the outer boroughs hit hardest by the war on drugs are still waiting.
“It seems like the Bronx is probably the last to get running. I don’t know why … but we just have to deal with it,” said Roger Thomas, co-founder and COO of Mello Tymes, a business he hopes to get licensed soon.
Thomas said that he’s prepared to play the long game.
“We’re just gonna have to do some unique marketing and just watch our bills, watch our income, and so forth,” he said. “We know it’s not going to be big money from day one. We’re here for the next five, 10 years, and we know we will be ready to be ready for when the market is saturated.”
There are also concerns that success may be harder to come by in the Bronx if the dispensaries aren’t located near universities or tourist attractions like Housing Works Cannabis Company, the city’s first legal shop that opened in December in NoHo, a high-traffic area full of tourists.
Carl Anderson III received a license for his dispensary, Mad City Canna, late last year. He’s still waiting for a lease, which DASNY will secure somewhere in the Bronx. He’s optimistic about the future of his business but said that he expects to have to do more community outreach and education as a small business in the Bronx.
“You’re not getting a lot of tourist activity,” Anderson said. “You’re not getting people coming from other places just coming to explore and they just happen upon your shop … There’s a lot of traction that comes from that, but you can’t rely on that in different than the outer boroughs as much. There’s certain things that those owners in the shops, they’re gonna have to become more of a community entity.”
The state legalized weed in March 2021 and the first store opened on Dec. 29. More than 60 licenses have been issued so far, of 300 in total to come. To help licensees through the process, OCM is launching a 20-week online training program for licensees to learn more about how to build a successful business.
The CAURD program, run by the Office of Cannabis Management, is aimed at equity — letting people who’ve personally been charged with a marijuana-related offense, or who have relatives who’ve been — a head start on the burgeoning industry. There’s also a $200 million New York Social Equity Cannabis Investment Fund to help build storefronts and provide loans to licensees.
Advocates, licensees and wannabe dispensary owners commended OCM’s approach — the first like it in the country — but worry that it won’t be enough to truly level the playing field.
“People who are coming down the road, where they’re the general population applicants and how we maintain social equity — that to me is where the rubber is going to meet the road,” said Desmon Lewis, co-founder of the Bronx Community Foundation. ” I think right now there’s a bit of a guardrail to allow for this first group to kind of move forward in a way that protects them.”
Businesses in the Bronx and other areas also deal with greater stigma associated with cannabis. After decades of harsh policing of cannabis and stop-and-frisk policies, many residents are skeptical and distrustful of the state-run cannabis industry, according to Damian Fagon, the Chief Equity Officer at OCM.
This played out in Harlem when local businesses pushed back on the opening of a dispensary on 125th St.
“We do see it as threatening the work that we’ve done,” said Barbara Askins, president and CEO of the local BID in January. “People and businesses are trying to hang on, because they see the effort and they see the improvement, and we don’t need for it to go back.”
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For those in the cannabis industry, this makes education and outreach efforts all the more important in areas like the South Bronx.
“It’s not as politically complicated in parts of lower Manhattan than it is in the South Bronx or East Brooklyn,” Fagon, from OCM, said. “We just need to make space for that, to have those have that open dialogue with the local community there that this is different — this isn’t what happened before. The state is attempting to make amends for previous misconduct and failure to really prioritize their communities and their residents.”
Kavita Pawria-Sanchez, the CEO of Cannabronx, a cannabis advocacy organization, acknowledged the state’s push for equity but said she worries that complicated cannabis regulations combined with the usual challenges of small business ownership will eventually give bigger, wealthier entrants to the market a better shot at long-term success.
Pawria-Sanchez is advocating for more education, cash aid and technical assistance to help justice-impacted businesses from getting weeded out.
“When you think about a cannabis business, cannabis is incredibly highly regulated and the regulatory framework is so complicated that being in compliance will be a constant and expensive challenge for businesses. And so in my view, the state is not doing enough to ensure success,” Pawria-Sanchez said.
OCM maintains that they’re doing all they can to support the new industry, but recognize that they’re tackling a large scale problem.
“It’s possible that we’ll never actually be able to do enough,” Fagon said. “… This is an incredibly difficult business to start and run profitably, as every other state has shown us. And so it’s fundamentally possible that the government is never going to be able to actually alleviate all those barriers.”