Architects of New York Legalization Urge Patience as They Seek Cannabis Equity Follow Through

While cannabis became legal in New York this spring, how the industry takes shape will be determined by  nominations and decisions that will be made in the coming weeks. 

The bill that Governor Andrew Cuomo signed into law in March creates the Office of Cannabis Management, and “establishes an Executive Director appointed by the Governor subject to Senate confirmation.” Nominations from the governor are top of mind for New York’s lawmakers and cannabis industry as this new office will oversee one of the largest legal cannabis markets in the world. 

Senator Liz Krueger and Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes negotiated with Cuomo for years to ensure that the legalization bill that made it over the finish line, their Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act, centered on social and racial justice.  

Now they want to make sure that whoever is selected to lead the Office of Cannabis Management understands “the commitment of this legislation,” as Krueger put it last month, during a New York-based virtual event called CannaGather.

During the event, Krueger expressed excitement to Peoples-Stokes because she had received a call from the governor’s office that day to “assure me that they were going to start moving this and that they wanted to be hand-in-hand with you and I and make us happy,” adding that she thought names would drop in the coming days. Peoples-Stokes responded that this was the “the best news I heard all day.” 

That call has yet to come, Krueger told Cannabis Wire.

“I wish it was faster. Is it intentionally slower, because it’s marijuana? I don’t know,” Krueger told Cannabis Wire, referencing the nomination confirmation process. 

In response to a question during the event about the slow pace of developments post-legalization, People-Stokes urged “patience,” saying that it is important to ensure a strong foundation in these early days. 

“I hear you saying that things are being dragged along. I don’t think that they are. I think that it’s being more deliberate. We could have just said ‘okay’ to the first thought that came out of the second floor. And most people said, ‘no, that’s not okay.’ And sometimes you have to have these conversations in order to get it right,” Peoples-Stokes said at the CannaGather event. 

“It would be really bad for us to get this far, have the legislation pass, have it signed, have everybody all excited about it, and then we get the wrong people in place who cannot implement or will cause us to go backwards,” Peoples-Stokes continued, only to have to “find other people to replace them in order to get it done right, because that’s what will happen if the people who are there don’t get it done right. That’s why the legislature is at the table.” 

Norman Birenbaum is the current director of cannabis programs for New York and president of the national Cannabis Regulators Association. Cuomo appointed Birenbaum, who at the time served as Rhode Island’s top regulator, in December 2019. Krueger told Cannabis Wire, “I don’t expect his name to be floated for the two confirmed posts,” referencing the forthcoming nominations for OCM executive director and board chair.

“I think he has many skills. I just don’t think he has the vision or the expertise to start such an enormous agency for the state of New York,” Krueger said. “There will be quite a few senior positions in this large agency. And I, for one, am not saying I could never see him working in this agency,” she continued, adding, “We don’t really think he has the background to take on this huge responsibility. And, it’s not been clear to us that in the two years that he’s been here that he’s made any efforts to learn anything about those issues.” 

What characteristics are Krueger and Peoples-Stokes looking for in the next leader of cannabis regulation for New York State? 

“Someone who has their arms around what the legal limitations and issues are, what the regulatory model options are, by having an understanding of what’s worked and not worked in other states around the country. What the intentional goals of the legislature are, vis-à-vis the social justice side of our program, which is the huge, nobody’s-done-it-yet part. Everybody talks the talk. But New York is the state that needs to get it done,” Krueger said. “Which involves a true understanding of what’s happening on the ground in different communities, where the advocacy community is. And, ironically, what the story is in our illegal market, because we have no illusion that we shoot off a gun, that it’s day one, and the illegal market disappears.”  

Krueger reflected on the eight years that she and Peoples-Stokes pushed for cannabis law reform in New York, and Cuomo’s total opposition, from which he didn’t retreat until 2018. 

“I don’t know if the governor was ever enthusiastic about marijuana. When he came into office, it was clear he didn’t want it at all,” Krueger said. 

“Obviously, he agreed to the negotiations, and we did get it done,” Krueger continued, referencing Cuomo’s signature of MRTA in March. “But I don’t know that his head was in the game for marijuana. I think he was looking for things to move that would be popular and would perhaps take reporters’ minds off of other stories they were busy studying and writing.”

When asked directly what made 2021 different from the preceding years during which negotiations fell apart, and whether the allegations of sexual misconduct might have somehow played into legalization this year, Krueger told Cannabis Wire, “I think they did.” 

“You did get the sense from his people that this had become a high priority for the governor to get done,” Krueger said. “And I don’t believe it was a high priority for the governor to get done because he suddenly had a personal different take on the issue of marijuana.”

While it’s expected that New York’s regulators will need at least 18 months to launch the program, in the meantime, draft regulations will be released, followed by a public comment period. And, it’s likely that lawmakers will tweak the law through additional legislation, Krueger said, to better “answer questions we thought we’d answered.”

“We were doing an enormous amount of negotiating, clarifying, and work in a very short period of time. Because when, suddenly, there was this window and the governor was serious, for whatever his reasons,” Krueger said, “we wanted to get this put to bed. So that I confess in advance: were mistakes made? Hell yes, I’m sure they were. And the good news is, legislatures deal with what we call technical chapter amendments and laws all the time.”

More Architects of New York Legalization Urge Patience as They Seek Cannabis Equity Follow Through