Most New Yorkers voters are against allowing people with prior marijuana convictions to get a head start in launching adult-use retail stores in the state, a new poll found just days after regulators approved a proposal to do just that.
The survey from Siena College shows that only 33 percent of New Yorkers favor “ensuring that many of the first licenses for marijuana retail stores go to those previously convicted of marijuana-related crimes or their family members,” compared to 54 percent who are opposed and 13 percent who said they aren’t sure.
It’s an interesting data point, as there’s generally widespread consensus among legalization advocates that those most impacted by cannabis criminalization should be specifically empowered to participate in the industry. But for New Yorkers, according to this poll, that shouldn’t necessarily mean that those who were directly impacted by prohibition should be first in line to open shops.
The crosstabs of the poll found that a plurality of Democrats (45 percent) believe those with marijuana convictions should be prioritized in licensing, versus 43 percent who oppose that proposal. Fifty percent who identify as “liberal” are supportive.
A majority of Republicans (72 percent) and self-identified conservatives (74 percent) say they are against giving those with past convictions the benefit of launching marijuana businesses first. Only 19 percent of Republicans and 16 percent of conservatives feel those most impacted by criminalization should be prioritized.
Meanwhile, political independents oppose the idea, 29 percent to 55 percent.
Forty-eight percent of black people—a group that has been disproportionately impacted by prohibition—said that directly affected communities should get licensing priority. Fifty-two percent of Latinos are also on board, compared to just 29 percent of white people.
“Giving first dibs on marijuana licenses to those previously convicted divides Democrats and New York City voters. Strong majorities of Republicans, independents, voters outside New York City, and white voters give it a thumbs down,” Siena College pollster Steven Greenberg said in a press release. “Latino voters support it by 12 points and Black voters by 11 points.”
The only other demographic where there’s majority support for the proposal, which was unanimously approved during a Cannabis Control Board meeting this month, are voters aged 18 to 34 years old.
There’s also a plurality of support for the concept among those living in New York City: 44 percent agree with the proposal and 43 percent are against it. Those living in New York suburbs and upstate are mostly opposed, at 63 and 61 percent, respectively.
Melissa Moore, director of civil systems reform for the Drug Policy Alliance, said the polling question left out important components of the licensing program, including that it requires recipients to have previously owned and operated a successful business.
“We know that crafting policy that is both viable and rooted in racial and economic justice is not simply dictated on the basis polling questions, but rather through deep commitment to repairing the legacy of harm that has impacted thousands,” she told Marijuana Moment. “In New York the damage from the marijuana arrest crusade is abundantly clear, and we applaud the Office of Cannabis Management’s efforts to turn the tables and forefront opportunities for people who have been impacted by the drug war—instead of blocking them out as we’ve seen in so many other adult-use markets.”
“Leading with equity will require continued innovation and ingenuity on the part of New York’s policymakers, regulators, advocates and aspiring businessowners,” Moore said, “but we hope that New York can be a model of how to build a legal cannabis sector that’s grounded in equity and justice.”
The Siena College survey involved interviews with 804 registered voters in New York from March 20-24. The margin of error is +/- 4.2 percentage points.
Advocates have pushed hard to enact policy that specifically benefits those from communities most targeted in the war on drugs. Licensing prioritization has been a key proposal they’ve worked to incorporate into legal marijuana markets as more states enact reform.
New Jersey officials are also grappling with ensuring equity in the cannabis industry, and polling from there similarly signals that the public isn’t in favor of putting those most affected by criminalization at the front of the licensing line as the Garden State prepares to launch its adult-use market.
The firm RTI International released a survey last year showing that 27 percent of respondents believe that New Jersey should give “priority in licensing” to “people who have been arrested for marijuana” should have their applications reviewed first. That’s compared to 43 percent who oppose that idea and 30 percent who aren’t sure.
The survey also found in a separate question that just 13 percent of New Jersey residents believe that “people who have been arrested or convicted for marijuana” should get a marijuana license. Meanwhile, 63 percent said licenses should go to “companies that are owned and operated by people from New Jersey.”
Thirty-two percent said that licenses should be prioritized for “companies that will hire people from communities that have been harmed by past enforcement of marijuana laws,” and 18 percent said licensing should go to “people from communities where there have been a lot of marijuana arrests.”
All that said, 58.3 percent of New Jersey respondents said that equity is more important in implementing a legal marijuana market, compared to only 5.8 percent said it’s more important for them to have a “rapid rollout of the new industry.”
Jane Allen, senior manager of public health at RTI International who was among the authors of the report, told Marijuana Moment that there’s an important caveat to these findings.
She said that her research “showed that only 25 percent of New Jersey adults knew about the concept of equity in cannabis, and a “substantial proportion had no firm opinion as to whether people with marijuana arrests should be prioritized for a license.”
“Our study showed that when people learned about the rationale for equity provisions, such as priority licensing for people who have been arrested, they were much more supportive of those policies,” Allen said. “To me, these data indicate that the public is actually somewhat open to these policies.”
In New York, Gov. Kathy Hochul (D), who has made a point to ensure that the industry New York establishes is equitable, included the licensing proposal as part of her administration’s “Seeding Opportunity Initiative.”
The Siena poll found that Hochul holds a strong lead over her gubernatorial primary contestants, but she’s faced pushback over her bold cannabis advocacy proposals.
“The Criminals for Kathy coalition is growing,” GOP candidate Lee Zeldin, currently a congressman, said in a social media post this month, for example. ” Cannabis dispensary licenses are going to start getting distributed in NY, & the Hochul admin will be giving FIRST PRIORITY to people previously convicted for marijuana offenses. Hochul’s criminal first agenda is so wrong for NY.”
The Criminals for Kathy coalition is growing. Cannabis dispensary licenses are going to start getting distributed in NY, & the Hochul admin will be giving FIRST PRIORITY to people previously convicted for marijuana offenses. Hochul's criminal first agenda is so wrong for NY. https://t.co/XtJQYGHEsq
— Lee Zeldin (@leezeldin) March 11, 2022
Office of Cannabis Management (OCM) Executive Director Chris Alexander said this month that he expects upwards of 200 “justice involved” applicants to receive the priority licenses under the proposal, with retailers potentially coming online by the year’s end.
To qualify for the conditional license, an applicant would need to have been convicted of a cannabis-related offense prior to March 31, 2021, when the state’s adult-use legalization law was enacted. Those who have a “parent, legal guardian, child, spouse, or dependent” who faced such convictions would also be eligible, as would those who were themselves dependent on someone with a conviction.
There are some business-related requirements in order for eligible applicants. For example, the measure states that they must “hold or have held, for a minimum of two years, at least ten percent ownership interest in, and control of, a qualifying business, which means a business that had net profit for at least two of the years the business was in operation.”
Non-profit organizations could also be eligible to hold the licenses if they “intentionally serve justice involved individuals and communities with historically high rates of arrest, conviction, incarceration or other indicators of law enforcement activity for marihuana-related offenses.”
Existing medical marijuana operators, called “registered organizations” under the state’s cannabis code, would generally not be able to obtain the proposed conditional licenses. This seems to be part of the state’s overall goal of ensuring that the industry that emerges is equitable and not dominated by monied multi-state operators.
To further ensure that those most impacted by criminalization are able to compete as the market opens and matures, the conditional licenses would need to be reserved to applicants with at least 51 percent ownership by justice involved people as outlined in the measure.
The proposed regulations will undergo a 60-day public comment period.
Conditional adult-use retail licenses would be valid for four years. Licensees would need to notify regulators of their intent to continue participating in the recreational market within 120 calendar days of the expiration of the conditional license. Regulators would conduct a review before approving them for the standard adult-use retailer licenses that will eventually be made more widely available to any interest parties.
Meanwhile, the state has also taken separate steps to get the industry in a position to have products available by creating provisional marijuana cultivator and processor licenses for existing hemp businesses that take certain steps to promote equity in the emerging industry. Hochul signed that legislation late last month. This “Farmers First Program” is another one of the three branches of the administration’s Seeding Opportunity Initiative.
As it stands, adults 21 and older can possess and publicly consume cannabis, as well as gift marijuana to other adults as long as they aren’t being compensated. But regulators are still finalizing licensing rules, and there are currently no retailers that are authorized to sell cannabis for adult use in the state.
The governor released a State of the State book in January that called for the creation of a $200 million public-private fund to specifically help promote social equity in the state’s burgeoning marijuana market. That funding, called the “New York Social Equity Cannabis Investment Program,” is the last component of the Seeding Opportunity Initiative.
Hochul said that while cannabis business licenses have yet to be approved since legalization was signed into law last year, the market stands to generate billions of dollars, and it’s important to “create opportunities for all New Yorkers, particularly those from historically marginalized communities.”
That proposal was also cited in the governor’s executive budget, which was released in January. The budget also estimated that New York stands to generate more than $1.25 billion in marijuana tax revenue over the next six years.
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Enacting legislation that expedites licensing could help the state reduce the number of businesses that are effectively using the legal “gifting” provision of the state’s marijuana law to give away cannabis for “free” if a non-marijuana-related purchase is made.
New York regulators recently issued warnings to more than two dozen businesses that they allege are either illegally selling marijuana without a license or exploiting the “gifting” component.
Here are some other ways that New York lawmakers and regulators are working to build upon the legalization law as the state prepares to implement retail sales:
Last month, for example, a state senator filed a bill that would promote recycling in the marijuana industry once retail sales officially launch.
Sen. Michelle Hinchey (D) is also sponsoring that legislation, which would require cannabis shops to apply a $1 deposit for any marijuana products sold in single-use plastic containers and also reimburse consumers for that fee if they return the container.
The senator is also behind a separate bill filed last year that would prioritize hemp-based packaging over synthetic plastics for marijuana products.
The recycling bill is identical to an Assembly version filed by Assemblywoman Patricia Fahy (D) last year.
Sen. Jeremey Cooney (D) is sponsoring a recently introduced bill to allow licensed cannabis companies to deduct certain business expenses on their state tax returns. He’s also behind the aforementioned measures to expand the marijuana law’s equity definition and provide provisional licenses to get the market ready.
The state Department of Labor separately announced in recent guidance that New York employers are no longer allowed to drug test most workers for marijuana.
Meanwhile, a New York lawmaker introduced a bill in June that would require the state to establish an institute to research the therapeutic potential of psychedelics.
Another state legislator filed legislation in December to legalize psilocybin mushrooms for medical purposes and establish facilities where the psychedelic could be grown and administered to patients.
Meanwhile, as New York prepares the launch of its adult-use marijuana market, OCM announced a significant expansion of the existing medical cannabis program in January.
Now doctors will be able to issue medical marijuana recommendations to people for any condition that they feel could be treated by cannabis, rather than rely on a list of specific eligible maladies.
Photo courtesy of Kimberly Lawson.