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Who's Been Left Behind by the Slow Legal Cannabis Rollout?

ISABELLE TEARE, HOST: New York City’s newest legal cannabis dispensary opened this month. It’s just the third store to open its doors. But nearly two years after cannabis was legalized in the State, why are there still so few? And who’s been left behind along the way? Thomas Copeland reports.

THOMAS COPELAND, BYLINE: When you walk off the ferry terminal on Rockaway, you’ll quickly spot a small school bus parked nearby. It’s painted black. It belongs to Omar Herrera, self-confessed cannabis connoisseur.

OMAR HERRERA: My birthday is the national marijuana day, four twenty, April 20th. I found that out, it kind of made me fall in love with the plant more, cause it was like, wow I felt connected to it.

COPELAND: Herrera says he started smoking cannabis as a child and selling it as a teenager. Inside the bus there’s a plywood shop counter. Today, there’s plenty in stock. Lighters in every color, grinders, paper, the lot.

HERRERA: All the necessities, the supplies that a cannabis smoker needs.

COPELAND: Except for one thing. A freshly printed sign in the window reads ‘no cannabis for sale’. That’s because in December, Herrera was arrested for selling cannabis. The cops found over a pound of cannabis plant, nearly 300 pre-rolled cannabis cigarettes and 49 bags of gummies and cookies on the bus. Herrera doesn't have a license to sell cannabis, but he wants one.

HERRERA: So how do I go legit? Give me what I need so that I can pay taxes and be legit. That’s all we want.

COPELAND: Licenses for legal cannabis stores are issued by the state Office for Cannabis Management or OCM. They say that the rollout of licenses is specifically designed to help communities which have been harmed by decades of cannabis criminalization. So they’ve been limiting the eligibility for the first round of licenses. To qualify, the applicant had to have owned a profitable business and be able to afford the $2,000 fee. Plus, either they or a family member had to have been convicted of a cannabis-related offense before legalization. Ryan Sakacs runs Empire Cannabis Consulting. He helps illegal sellers navigate their way into the legal market.

SAKACS: People have said that basically the person would have to be a unicorn to fit those eligibility requirements.

COPELAND: Sakacs says the OCM’s approach is admirable, but it has slowed things down. Just 56 individual licenses have been issued so far. Trivette Knowles from the OCM says that agency is brand new, and they’re trying to build a complicated industry in the right way.

KNOWLES: We have to understand that every single thing that New York does towards cannabis legalization is through an equity lens, right. Any person who's recognized the harms of the War on Drugs has also recognized that the state has some type of responsibility in undoing those harms in any capacity.

COPELAND: So what about Omar Herrera? He comes from exactly the type of community that Knowles is talking about and he says he wants to get a license. But he can’t. Remember, to qualify you had to have been convicted before legalization. Herrera was arrested after that.

HERRERA: I unfortunately didn't have a conviction before it was legal it was just an arrest so I don’t fall into that category.

COPELAND: When I asked Knowles whether convictions that sellers like Herrera are facing could actually ruin their chances of getting a license in the future, I couldn’t get a clear answer. As for Herrera, there’s only so much he will tell me on tape, but he says he’s been in this business too long to stop now.

HERRERA: The patience is, I’m doing with being patient. I’m done with that because now if you don't take what’s yours, someone else is going to take it. And that’s the New York mentality man.

COPELAND: The OCM says that a general license, open for everyone, is coming soon, but not for another six months. Herrera is due in court next week. Thomas Copeland, Columbia Radio News.

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