ALBANY (TNS) — Ten months after marijuana use was legalized for all adults in New York, there’s still a long way to go before the state’s cannabis industry is in full swing.
Regulators in the newly formed Cannabis Control Board (CCB) and Office of Cannabis Management (OCM) are often asked when it will become possible to walk into a dispensary to buy cannabis, among other things.
Here are five common questions about the state of legal cannabis in New York, answered:
1. When can I buy weed legally?
No one is licensed to sell (or gift) cannabis in the state of New York yet. Dispensaries and lounges — another name for on-site consumption businesses — will open in New York only after officials finish writing regulations and issuing licenses. Authorities currently are revamping the state’s cannabinoid hemp and medical marijuana programs.
”We’re hopeful to see some regulations for the adult-use program this winter, or early spring,” said Chris Alexander, the head of the OCM.
Tremaine Wright, the chair of the CCB, said they’ve been on “an aggressive schedule of 18 months” to get the industry up and running; on that timeline, the first dispensaries would presumably be allowed to open their doors sometime around spring 2023.
But Alexander said he and his colleagues are intentionally not giving dates for when products will hit shelves. Though their 18-month estimate is based on what they’ve seen in other states, the group is “trying to accelerate, trying to see how we can get folks up and running sooner.”
Regulators will need to schedule two separate 60-day public comment periods on the pending regulations before they even start accepting license applications. According to CCB member and former Sen. Jen Metzger, the public comment rule means it will take around five months just to firm up a set of regulations. She estimates the licensing process could kick off at the end of the year.
Once retail licenses are handed out, applicants who already have storefronts selling medical marijuana or CBD — the non-psychoactive component of cannabis — could add recreational marijuana to their shelves fairly quickly, as long as they can find a legal in-state supply.
2. Will I be able to buy marijuana in my town?
No municipality can overrule the statewide legalization of pot use. But individual cities, towns and villages were given nine months last year to decide if they wanted to bar it from local shop windows.
Each government had a hard deadline on Dec. 31 to pass a local law banning dispensaries, on-site consumption lounges, or both. Plenty did opt out, with significantly more nixing lounges — analogous to bars — than dispensaries, which are retail shops similar to liquor stores. Those that opted out can opt back in later, and some did so for that reason. Municipalities cannot opt out once opted in.
By the most generous estimates, a little over 50% of local governments passed such laws to ban marijuana shops locally. But that may be overstated, since only 34% of local governments in the state took the final step to submit their laws to state-level regulators, who will make all final licensing decisions.
You can look up what your leaders decided: state authorities recently released their version of the data on which municipalities passed local opt-out laws.
3. What’s being done about driving while high?
One of the most frequent concerns residents have raised is that people will drive while under the influence of cannabis. The tools for checking if someone is impaired from marijuana are far behind the tests for blood alcohol levels.
Gov. Kathy Hochul proposed that part of the OCM’s funding in the next fiscal year should be earmarked for a Drug Recognition Expert program to provide training for law enforcement. The OCM is also working with Hochul’s office to increase public awareness about driver safety.
Chris Alexander, the OCM director, said the office will focus on expanding the existing intensive training programs that help police identify impaired drivers. “We’ve committed to working with the Department of Health on improving the technology as it relates to detecting impairment,” Alexander said. “We also need to make sure those messages get across: do not drive under the influence of cannabis. That is still illegal.”
Another concern for some is children accidentally consuming edibles that are not properly stored.
Saugerties Police Chief Joseph Sinagra, who is a member of the New York City and Hudson Valley Cannabis Industry Association as a liaison with New York State Association of Chiefs of Police, said they are pushing for regulations around packaging so children do not mistakenly consume marijuana-laced products.
4. What does all the talk about social equity mean?
The cannabis legalization bill that passed last spring, the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA), included a goal to issue 50 percent of licenses to “social equity applicants,” as well as stipulations to give material support and training to help those applicants succeed.
The category of social equity written into the bill is broad: it includes communities disproportionately impacted by the enforcement of cannabis prohibition, as well as those who qualify as a minority- or women-owned businesses, distressed farmers, or service-disabled veterans. Lawmakers have proposed bills to include other groups, including trans, nonbinary, lesbian, gay and bisexual individuals.
According to the law, the 50 percent license target is a goal — not a rule. But so far regulators have talked a lot about equity, raising hopes that they’ll keep it front and center.
Alexander was one of the policy advisors working from outside of the government to push for marijuana legalization before he was chosen to head up the OCM. He has long been vehement about the negative effects of pot policing on the state’s Black and brown communities.
”As I’ve stepped into this role, I’ve continued the work that I started,” he said. He and his fellow regulators are hoping to build an industry with widespread participation, but one “that is not agnostic to the fact that we got here because every day, hundreds of people were being thrown up against walls and told to empty their pockets.”
In January, Gov. Hochul and board member Reuben McDaniel III announced a $200 million public-private social equity fund to ensure that “social equity applicants who are interested in retail licenses have the funding they need for capital improvements to open their facilities in a timely manner,” McDaniel said.
5. How can I get involved?
Any new proposed regulations need to go through a 60-day public comment period, where New York residents can email firstname.lastname@example.org with comments.
”I can’t emphasize enough how important the public comment period piece is,” said Metzger. “It’s important to get people’s feedback.”
Aside from writing in public comments, the OCM launched a series of virtual community outreach events called Cannabis Conversations. The 11 meetings, split by region with a statewide session for Spanish speakers, will be hosted by Wright. They represent the first systematic outreach by the board to communities across the state, and will allow residents to hear directly from regulators.
Though Anderson said the events would be online “in the interest of public health,” he assured viewers of the last control board meeting that “once we are able, we will get out there, we will tour the state and engage with you in person.”