New Yorkers Attempt to Clear Names for Plant That is Now Legal

As adult-use cannabis thrives in New York, some residents say their lives are still ruined due to past cannabis convictions that haunt their records. While programs are in place to clear certain types of records, lawyers worry the state isn’t doing enough.

The Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA) passed last year, and under the MRTA, certain people can ask the court to vacate their convictions if they are experiencing “severe or ongoing consequences related to either their conviction or the sentence,” according to the law.

To date, the state expunged or suppressed search results for nearly 400,000 cannabis-related convictions. Plus last March, the New York State Cannabis Control Board voted unanimously to propose regulations to allow the first couple hundred retail licenses to be given to people convicted of cannabis-related crimes.

Still, certain cases are being denied by county district attorney offices in the state. On June 22, Syracuse.com and NY Cannabis Insider profiled some New York cases involving people who are still trying to clear their name but not finding any luck. In some cases, small details such as the amount of cannabis can make all the difference in the expungement process.

Lawyers say everyone with a cannabis-related conviction faces “severe or ongoing consequences.”

“I cannot imagine an instance where a prior marijuana conviction does not cause severe or ongoing consequences,” said Wei Hu, an attorney and founder of MRTA Law who is representing two clients as their applications to vacate are being opposed by the Nassau and Dutchess County DA offices.

Nassau County DA’s office wrote that due to the amounts of cannabis involved, those particular crimes would still be a crime today. The Dutchess County DA’s office provided a similar argument.

But lawyers like Hu say the state isn’t doing enough to erase cannabis convictions from the past, often over minor discrepancies. And the consequences can ruin a person’s career.

“It impacts the family, it impacts personal relationships, it impacts your professional ones, it disenfranchises people from voting, it keeps people out of public housing, it disables them from sustainable employment, and it’s one of the most pernicious laws that still exists when you now have legal and regulated sales,” said Hu.

“It’s really distasteful.”

In other words, it’s hypocritical for New Yorkers on one hand to get rich while others are still facing the consequences of the failed War on Drugs.

New York officials have less than a year to finish automatic expungements, but only certain types of crimes are eligible. “If you were convicted of violating Sections 221.05, 221.10, 221.15, 221.20, 221.35, or 221.40 of the Penal Law, you are entitled to automatic expungement and sealing,” the law states. “These convictions currently will not appear in a criminal history search requested through the Courts or the Division of Criminal Justice Services. Automatic expungement of these charges will be completed on or before March 31, 2023.”

Other States Take the Lead in Expungement Process Improvements

States like Colorado and Illinois are making improvements to their expungement systems.

In Colorado, Gov. Jared Polis signed Senate Bill 99 into law on May 31, where automatic expungements are not part of the program. It further expands and streamlines the state’s automatic record sealing process. He also used his executive authority to pardon several thousand Coloradans convicted of low-level cannabis offenses.

In Illinois, Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed House Bill 4392, amending state law so that the courts are no longer able to deny petitioners’ requests to have their criminal records expunged solely because of a cannabis-related drug test failure.

New York still has the potential to improve its expungement processes.

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New York’s Cayuga Nation To Sell Recreational Cannabis

New York’s Cayuga Nation Native American tribe is preparing to launch an adult-use cannabis cultivation enterprise, months before state-licensed recreational pot retailers begin serving customers.

Under the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA) passed by lawmakers last year, possession of cannabis became legal for adults in September. But regulators are still working to manage and license adult-use cannabis businesses, with retailers not expected to open until spring of 2023.

As sovereign nations, however, Native American tribal governments have the power to regulate cannabis production and sales on tribal lands. Last summer, the Shinnecock Nation on Long Island announced that it was beginning a commercial cannabis operation on its land. And now the Cayuga Nation, which is already the home of hemp and CBD brand Arrowhead Hemp, is also delving into the recreational weed industry.

Freeman Klopott, a spokesperson for the state Office of Cannabis Management, says that New York’s tribal nations have the right to enact and implement their own cannabis regulatory structure.

“Native Americans living on federally recognized, sovereign tribal land are legally allowed to operate dispensaries that are not regulated under the New York State cannabis law,” Klopott told Politico.

He also said the state “has the ability to enter into agreements with tribes through tribal compacts to integrate them into the state program if all parties can agree to terms,” although no tribes have established such an agreement.

Tribal lawyer Lee Redeye said that state regulators’ delay in implementing cannabis legalization presents an opportunity for tribal governments to get a head start on the recreational cannabis market.

“There’s a considerable amount of money to be made in the industry, especially with New York lagging behind,” said Redeye.

Cultivation Facility Under Development

The Cayuga Nation has decided to exercise its authority to self-regulate cannabis and is currently creating a cultivation facility at Gakwiyo Garden, the tribe’s 100-acre agricultural development in Seneca Falls, New York. The tribal enterprise currently grows more than 35 crops at Gakwiyo Garden, which includes a 3,000 square foot greenhouse.

The new cannabis cultivation facility will reportedly have 15,000 square feet of indoor growing area. Cannabis produced at the facility will then be packaged and sold at an undisclosed location on tribal land. The tribe is banking on the new financial endeavor to provide revenue for the tribe and employment opportunities for its members.

“Developing our cannabis business is the next step in expanding and diversifying the Cayuga Nation’s economic opportunities and providing long-lasting benefits to the community,” the Cayuga Nation of New York said in a statement to the Cornell Sun.

The tribe has contracted with Rochester-based architectural firm Bergmann Associates to direct an overhaul of the current Gakwiyo Garden greenhouse operation. Construction on the project is expected to begin early this year, with an anticipated completion date before 2023. Maria Stagliano, a spokesperson for the Cayuga Nation, said that the tribe has hired Jake Brewer, the former head grower for a Colorado-based cannabis company, to head the Cayuga Nation’s cannabis operation.

In its statement, the Cayuga Nation said that it would work with state and local officials to ensure a smooth rollout of its recreational cannabis venture.

“Our vision for the future of the Cayuga Nation remains focused on bettering the lives of our members, our community, and our neighbors,” the Cayuga Nation said in their statement. “As we venture forward in our economic development, we remain committed to working closely with local governments to ensure the health and safety of our community.”

Customers of tribal cannabis businesses will be able to avoid the state’s 9% cannabis excise tax tacked onto New York’s sales tax rate of 4%. But attorney Redeye fears the state government may eventually try to tax cannabis sales on tribal lands, a move that would likely result in a lawsuit in federal court.

“My suspicion is that, eventually, the state will seek to try to tax those sales,” Redeye said. “New York state is always greedy. New York state will always seek to extract revenue from tribes. It has historically, and I don’t expect that to end anytime soon.”

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New York Expands Medical Marijuana Eligibility

This week, New York expanded eligibility for the state’s medical cannabis program to include more patients, according to an announcement from state regulators. New York’s Office of Cannabis Management said on Monday that the state had launched a new medical marijuana certification and registration system that is “easier to use and expands the eligibility criteria for patients who can benefit from medical cannabis.”

Under the new eligibility criteria, practitioners will be allowed to issue medical marijuana certifications to any patient they believe may benefit from the medicinal use of cannabis. Previously, the use of medical cannabis was restricted to patients with one or more qualifying medical conditions. The Office of Cannabis Management (OCM) noted that the change is consistent with the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA) passed by lawmakers last year.

In addition to legalizing the recreational use of marijuana and establishing a framework for adult-use cannabis sales, the MRTA shifted the regulation of New York’s medical marijuana program from the state Department of Health to the OCM. Tremaine Wright, the chair of the state Cannabis Control Board, applauded the progress made by state marijuana regulators.

“It is terrific to see the Medical Cannabis Program expand so vastly with the launch of the new certification and registration program and the ability of practitioners to determine qualifying conditions as included in the MRTA,” Wright said in a statement from the OCM. 

Previously, the OCM announced additional changes to the state’s medical marijuana program, including allowing the sale of cannabis flower and a permanent waiver of registration fees for patients and caregivers. Regulators also expanded the list of caregivers qualified to certify patients for medical marijuana to include any practitioner who is licensed to prescribe controlled substances in New York, such as dentists, podiatrists and midwives. 

Other changes to New York’s medical marijuana program made by the OCM include increasing the amount of cannabis that may be dispensed at one time from a 30-day supply to a 60-day supply and streamlining the approval for institutions such as hospitals, residential facilities and schools to become designated caregiver facilities to hold and dispense products for patients. Additionally, the state Cannabis Control Board has accepted public comments on proposed regulations to govern the home cultivation of cannabis by medical cannabis patients and is currently completing an assessment of the comments submitted for publication in the state register.

“The new cannabis industry is taking shape as we continue to implement the MRTA and provide greater access for New Yorkers to a medicine that we’re learning more about every day,” Wright said. “We’re continuing to move forward swiftly and today’s system launch follows our achievements that already include adding whole flower medical product sales, permanently waiving $50 patient fees, and advancing home cultivation regulations, among others.”

Patients certified through the new certification and registration system will be issued their certification from the OCM. Certifications previously issued by the Department of Health will continue to remain valid through their expiration date, when new certifications will be issued by the OCM.

Cannabis Community Applauds Expansion of Medical Marijuana Program

Dr. Rebecca Siegel, a clinical psychiatrist and the author of The Brain on Cannabis: What You Should Know About Recreational and Medical Marijuana, said that expanding access to medical cannabis is appropriate, because cannabis can be beneficial for a wide range of medical conditions.

“I think this gives practitioners in all types of medicine just one more tool to add to their belt in order to effectively treat patients,” Siegal wrote in an email to High Times. “Most importantly, I think this broadens the opportunity for more patients to have access to cannabis from their own personal trusted physicians who can better monitor their conditions and use of marijuana. This is way better than patients trying to manage it on their own.”

Sharon Ali, the Mid-Atlantic regional general manager for cannabis multi-state operator Acreage Holdings, said that expanding access to medical marijuana is a significant advancement for New York, where the company operates four The Botanist retail locations.

“New York has the opportunity to implement lessons learned from earlier adopters of legalization, and we’ve seen from other states that one of the most important foundations for a successful adult-use program is a robust medical program,” Ali wrote in an email, adding that it is “an exciting time for New York as the cannabis program continues to evolve in a positive direction.”

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What’s Happening in New York Now That Cannabis is Legal?

“Free samples! Edibles! Check it out,” the young entrepreneur who goes by the moniker “AI” yells in between tokes on a joint slathered with budder. Then, she adds, “I’m high as f*ck!”

This is a Friday night in Washington Square Park, a key youth gathering point in New York City’s Greenwich Village, and business is brisk.

‘Open Market’ in Washington Square

AI says her initials stand for An Inspiration, and her business, registered in New York state last year, is Canaremedy — offering its own line of infused edibles, topicals and oils. At the table she has set up, she is also offering little baggies of bud, and pre-rolled joints.

Those inquiring about free samples are encouraged to help themselves to a little paper cup of AI’s “weed juice” — AI’s own concoction featuring a THC tincture. For the other products, money is exchanged, but technically, AI says she is accepting donations for free samples, rather than making sales.  

It may seem a semantic distinction, but the since the passage of New York’s Marijuana Taxation & Regulation ACT (MRTA) in March, there is an “open market” in the state. Even if authorities officially do not view it that way, it is clear that the police are taking a hands-off approach. Several other tables peddling similar wares are set up nearby. The cops clustered around the square’s iconic arch, some 50 yards away, do not interfere. And this scene has been unfolding every night all summer long, and now into early fall.

Canaremedy founder “AI” holds up one of her products in Washington Square Park. PHOTO Bill Weinberg

AI’s goal is to eventually get a storefront, and a share of the licensed market. She registered the Canaremedy brand in 2020, in anticipation of legalization. Born in Newark and once homeless on the streets of New York, she’s now an East Village resident. 

She explains that she got into developing her own cannabis products because her sister is suffering from multiple sclerosis, and her ailing mother suffered from a skin condition. “I felt the need to help my family — both with financial support and medicine.” Her first creation was a CBD “body butter” that aided her mother’s condition.  

“My mission is to create a business to help people and the community — mind, body and soul.” And also, she adds, to finance her ambitions as a writer, rapper, artist and musician. She is currently working on a semi-autobiographical book, Love A Lesbian.

Local Neighborhood Business

“Trademark Rob” has over the past several weeks maintained a similar table, this one on the sidewalk of Clinton Street on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. “I was born and raised on Clinton Street,” he says proudly as he breaks up bud to roll a joint on the curbside. “Clinton is on my birth certificate.”  

The baseball cap he wears backwards, New York style, shows the official logo of the city, in the official font — “NYC.” But it is adorned with a cannabis leaf image and the letters below read “New York Cannabis.”

Trademark launched his tongue-in-cheek brand a year ago as an apparel line, with the anticipation of cannabis going legal in New York state. After months of selling hoodies, caps and t-shirts emblazoned with the New York Cannabis logo from a storefront at 40 Clinton, on April 1 (the day after MRTA was signed) he started offering cannabis officially, as a promotional give away with an apparel sale. He set up the sidewalk stand in September, when the storefront was temporarily closed for renovations.

At the stand, Trademark and his crew offer a sealed baggie of bud (3.5 grams) with a purchase of $100 worth of merchandise. “We call that an eighth on the street,” Trademark says wryly.

“Trademark Rob” takes a puff in front of his Clinton Street sidewalk storefront. PHOTO Bill Weinberg

Waiting to get back into the storefront after the landlord completes renovation, Trademark says being on street has increased awareness and visibility. “People were thinking we were just an apparel store.”

There has been no problem with law enforcement whatsoever, according to Trademark. He’s openly sold bud and edibles from his table. “The cops are more concerned with vehicles parked in the bike lane,” he quips.  

“It all unfolded organically for me,” Trademark says. “We’ll apply for a retail license when it’s available. We want to offer educational courses for those new to the cannabis biz, and a members-only consumption lounge. Maybe a smoke and paint, instead of a sip-and-paint.” 

A list of available varieties displayed at the table names San Fernando Valley OG, Glookies (Gorilla Glue X Girl Scout Cookies), Cake Batter, Kasmeir, East Coast Sour Diesel and Fruity Pebbles.  

Trademark says all the product is New York state indoor, and much of it grown within the city. He says whole buildings in the city are now dedicated to cannabis cultivation, exploiting the six plants per adult resident allowed under MRTA. Although technically, this provision does not take effect for several months.

Delayed Licensing Process

This same strategy of conforming to the letter of the law by the narrowest of margins is also being pursued by the city’s CBD stores, which are openly selling very potent Delta-8 products. Since passage of the 2018 U.S. Farm Bill, hemp-derived Delta-8 THC has been in a legal grayzone, as the law only refers to Delta-9 THC as a prohibited cannabinoid.

Mayor Bill de Blasio, for two years now, has instructed the NYPD to not make arrests for small cannabis offenses, and New York City’s district attorneys are no longer prosecuting such cases. However, this applies to use and possession rather than sale. And while arrests dropped dramatically under this policy, as recently as mere weeks before the passage of MRTA, there were still instances of brutal arrests for cannabis offenses. 

Under MRTA, public use and possession by those over 21 are now legal, within the permitted limits: three ounces of bud or 24 grams of concentrate. But unlicensed cannabis sale is another matter and it not clear if the law treats the exchange of unlicensed cannabis from one hand to another any differently if no money is exchanged. The current laissez-faire atmosphere in the Big Apple appears to be a matter of policy rather than law.

Six months after the passage of MRTA, state authorities are only now starting the process of crafting the licensing and regulation structure for commercial cultivation, processing and sale. The first meeting of the new Cannabis Control Board was finally held on Oct. 5, in a virtual format, NewYorkUpstate reports. Political chaos in New York state (then-governor Andrew Cuomo stepped down under cloud of scandal five months after signing MRTA) contributed to delays in appointment of the five-member board. 

“The MRTA was signed into law on March 31. But we were not able to begin the work of establishing New York’s cannabis market until Sept. 22, when the full cannabis control board was appointed. As such, there was a six-month delay to make up,” Christopher Alexander, executive director of the Office of Cannabis Management, told the board as the meeting opened, according to LoHud.  

And the only immediate changes to come out of this first meeting concerned the state’s very limited medical marijuana program. Board members agreed to permanently waive the $50 registration fee for patients and caregivers and to make actual herbaceous cannabis an approved form of medical marijuana product.

Empire State Canna-Boom?

A coming cannabis boom was hyped by Gov. Kathy Hochul at the Business Council of New York State’s annual meeting on Sept. 24. “We do want to go big or go home, and I want to help you get there,” she said. “I need you to survive because you’re the identity of New York that people create jobs and opportunities. You are who we are as New Yorkers. Your success means the success of this entire state,” Hochul affirmed.

“So count me in as an ally — someone who’s going to be there for you, who will fight for you to make sure that we do not lose out to any competition, whether it’s in the space of cannabis, where I believe there’s thousands and thousands of jobs and new industries, to be created.”

The Business Council meeting, held “in real life” at Rockefeller Center’s posh Rainbow Room, brought out several bigwigs of finance, industry and celebrity, including Bronx native and retired NFL player Ruben Lindo, who is now CEO of Phoenix Nutraceutical and founder of Buffalo-based Blak Mar Farms. Lindo applauded the state’s commitment to award cannabis business licenses to neighborhoods impacted by cannabis prohibition under MRTA’s social equity provisions. But he urged that those who have already been in the industry deserve more than a carved-out allocation of permits, according to MarketWatch.

“It’s about giving the rightful ownership of an industry to people who bore the brunt of incarceration,” Lindo said. “We operated in the space at risk of life and liberty.”

Many of these legacy operators are already taking advantage of the post-MRTA euphoria and bureaucratic limbo to boogie in public. It remains to be seen whether this thriving informal sector will survive once the big boys start getting state licenses.

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