Cannabis Play Traces History and Culture

Five years in the making and twice postponed by COVID lockdowns, a cannabis theatrical concert dedicated to celebrating marijuana, and raising consciousness around the plant, has opened in New York City. Cannabis! A Viper Vaudeville uses music and projected images as well as dialogue to trace the journey of cannabis from the herblore of ancient India and China through European bohemia, American prohibition, youth counterculture and finally legalization (in many states).

Running through July 31 at La Mama Experimental Theatre Club, a venerable venue in Manhattan’s East Village, the show is written by Baba Israel, who serves as MC, with music composed by Grace Galu, who performs on vocals and guitar as the “Sativa Diva.” Israel’s longtime outfit Soul Inscribed serves as the back-up band, and there’s also an ensemble of dancers.

Cannabis History in Music, Word and Image

After a brief passage covering thousands of years, in which cannabis went from the earliest botanical references of the ancient world to being the muse of French poets including Balzac and Baudelaire, the herb crosses the Atlantic to the Americas—woven into the “hair of the enslaved.” This refers to the tradition of African crop seeds—including cannabis—being smuggled onto the slave ships by this means during the Middle Passage. 

The link between marijuana prohibition and racism is emphasized in this cannabis theatrical concert. African American culture nurtured cannabis, as manifested in musical samples such as Fats Waller’s “The Reefer Song” (with its refrain “When you’re a viper,” jazz slang for herb aficionados) and Ella Fitzgerald’s “When I Get Low I Get High.” 

Louis Armstrong’s rendering of “La Cucaracha” speaks to the use of cannabis by Pancho Villa’s troops during the Mexican Revolution. But this meant backlash north of the border, with “marihuana” mixed up in the white mind with subversive Mexican immigrants. Lurid newspaper clips from the period inform us that California criminalized the herb amid such fears in 1913, followed by Texas in 1919. 

And when crusading federal bureaucrat Harry Anslinger launched his successful campaign to criminalize cannabis nationwide in the 1930s, he played to the most blatant and ugly stigmatization of both Mexicans and Blacks—again portrayed in period images.  

But the beatniks were starting to popularize weed among white folks just as the civil rights movement was taking off in the 1950s. And it all came together in the countercultural explosion and youth rebellion of the ’60s, punctuated by Bob Dylan’s “Rainy Day Women” (with its refrain “everybody must get stoned”) and the Beatles’ “(I Get High) With a Little Help from My Friends.” 

This, again, meant a governmental backlash in the War On Drugs and mass incarceration Nixon and Reagan eras. 

The origins of the legalization movement are depicted in the groundbreaking efforts of San Francisco activists Dennis Peron and Mary Jane “Brownie Mary” Rathbun, who provided cannabis to people with HIV/AIDS who needed it to survive, in an open challenge to the authorities. The final generation of the narrative takes us from San Francisco’s 1991 voter initiative to allow medicinal cannabis use in the city to the 2021 law legalizing weed in New York state. The transformation is set to anthems such as Bob Markey’s “Kaya.” 

This chronology is inspired by Martin A. Lee’s 2021 book Smoke Signals: A Social History of Marijuana

After much didacticism, the cannabis theatrical concert has its poignant moments. One uses an improvisatory excursion and expressive dance to depict a war veteran’s journey from PTSD to relief from pot. In another, Israel describes how his mom, Pamela Mayo Israel—a veteran of the pioneering experimental Living Theatre troupe, now suffering from dementia—uses cannabis to overcome confusion and tantrums. She now has a fanbase for video streams of her dancing.  

Confrontational Theater

Grace Galu performs in theatrical cannabis concert.
Grace Galu (center) performs in Cannabis! A Viper Vaudeville.

The cannabis theatrical concert, developed through a residency at HERE, the same Lower Manhattan theater that was an incubator for The Vagina Monologues, explicitly aspires to be a vehicle for activism. Each performance ends with a short presentation by a representative of New York’s cannabis community. 

The night I attended, July 20, this was Zulai Romero of the Brooklyn cannabis start-up Muz, who expressed her hope New Yorkers “will support communities of color as the MSOs move in.” This is a reference to the multi-state operators now preparing to swoop on New York’s market. That day also happened to be Grace Galu’s birthday, and there was Manhattan cheesecake to go around at a small afterparty. 

Asked for a few words at the afterparty, Galu said: “Culture, community, celebration! But also, grief, for those who died in prison or during arrest or of illness because they didn’t have access to cannabis—all those who didn’t make it to celebrate legalization.” 

Summing up the spirit of the production, she said: “So, come see a razzle-dazzle play about cannabis. But it’s not frivolous—it’s about the profound consequences both of its use and its prohibition. We think that theater should be somewhat uncomfortable and confronting.”

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NYC’s Overdose Prevention Centers Prove Effective

A new study published this month has found that New York City’s historic safe consumption centers have helped reduce overdoses.

The study, conducted by researchers affiliated with the NYC Department of Health (which oversees the sites), covered the two months of the program across two different consumption sites.

Last November, then-New York Mayor Bill de Blasio announced “that the first publicly recognized Overdose Prevention Center (OPC) services in the nation have commenced in New York City.”

OPCs, the city explained in the announcement, “are safe places where people who use drugs can receive medical care and be connected to treatment and social services.”

NYC officials touted their effectiveness, saying in the press release at the time that such services are “proven to prevent overdose deaths, and are in use in jurisdictions around the world,” and that there “has never been an overdose death in any OPC.”

A study from the city’s Department of Health found that “OPCs in New York City would save up to 130 lives a year.”

“New York City has led the nation’s battle against COVID-19, and the fight to keep our community safe doesn’t stop there. After exhaustive study, we know the right path forward to protect the most vulnerable people in our city. And we will not hesitate to take it,” de Blasio said in the announcement. “Overdose Prevention Centers are a safe and effective way to address the opioid crisis. I’m proud to show cities in this country that after decades of failure, a smarter approach is possible.”

The study published this month may be seen as vindication for the advocates of the program.

“During the first 2 months of OPC operation, trained staff responded 125 times to mitigate overdose risk. In response to opioid-involved symptoms of overdose, naloxone was administered 19 times and oxygen 35 times, while respiration or blood oxygen levels were monitored 26 times,” the authors wrote. “In response to stimulant-involved symptoms of overdose (also known as overamping), staff intervened 45 times to provide hydration, cooling, and de-escalation as needed. Emergency medical services responded 5 times, and participants were transported to emergency departments 3 times. No fatal overdoses occurred in OPCs or among individuals transported to hospitals.”

“This quality improvement study found that during the first 2 months of operations, services at 2 OPCs in NYC were heavily used, with early data suggesting that supervised consumption in these settings was associated with decreased overdose risk,” they added. “Data also suggested that OPCs were associated with decreased prevalence of public drug use.”

The authors did, however, caution that the findings are “limited by the short study period and lack of a comparison group with individuals not participating in OPC services,” and that additional “evaluation may explore whether OPC services are associated with improved overall health outcomes for participants, as well as neighborhood-level outcomes, including public drug use, improperly discarded syringes, and drug-related crime.”

But the study provides hope to those who are desperate to mitigate an overdose crisis that has become a national epidemic in the United States.

In the announcement of the OPC services last November, NYC officials said that “over 2,000 individuals died of a drug overdose in New York City [in 2020], the highest number since reporting began in 2000,” and that the “Centers for Disease Control projects that across the United States, more than 90,000 individuals died of a drug overdose during 2020, the worst year on record.”

Citing self-reported data, the authors of the new study said that “the drug most commonly used across 2 sites was heroin or fentanyl (73.7%) and the most frequent route of drug administration at the OPC was injection (65.0%).”

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NYC’s Mayor Tells People to “Light Up” at the Cannabis World Congress & Business Expo

Cannabis World Congress & Business Expo (CWCBE) took place over three days at The Jacob K. Javitz Convention Center on New York City’s West Side and while the event’s expo portion wasn’t surprising in its typical presentation or lack of actual cannabis, the standouts of the event were surprising, candidly forward comments about legal cannabis by the featured speakers. The talks were the focal point of the event. 

New York City Mayor Eric Adams seems to agree. The veteran NYPD officer opened his brief remarks to the audience with a joke.

“I’m a bit disappointed,” Mayor Adams said. “I thought I’d walk in the room and have a nice scent of weed goin’ on in here.” 

He went on to discuss his intentions for New York City’s legal cannabis industry at the well-attended speech at CWCBE.  

“There are great opportunities, and as I talk with mayors across the country, no one has seemed to have gotten it [cannabis legalization] right,” Adams said. “This is our opportunity to get it right; and the way you do that is with the power of information. We allocated, in our executive budget, close to $5 million just about assisting in openings of facilities, all the info you need. How do you navigate this complex new way of using cannabis for so many different reasons and so many different products? We want to hear your feedback. Reach out to us and my small business service commissioner. If there’s something you believe we can do better to make it happen, we want you to be a part of it.”

Legal marijuana will undoubtedly be big business for New York, “The numbers speak for themselves,” the mayor said. “The potential of raising almost $1.3 billion in this industry, 19,000 to 24,000 jobs. We’re going to be giving out 200 licenses in the area of cultivation and 200 licenses in the area of retail and 162 have already been issued. This is an opportunity for those who were left behind to really participate in this industry. We want to be clear that the magic term is equity.”

The mayor continued. “Those who were impacted by heavy-handed policing and had their lives destroyed, we need to make them whole. That means job training and improving credit reports of those who’ve been unemployed because of marijuana arrests. How do we make them whole? The money that’s set aside is about really looking back with understanding and acknowledging that we can’t just say, ‘let’s start from where we are.’ We have to make people whole who’ve gone through some very difficult periods of over-policing in the area of cannabis throughout this entire city, throughout this entire state.”

The newly elected mayor ended his less than three-minute speech in this rather remarkable fashion:

“So, welcome here,” Mayor Eric Adams said. “Enjoy yourself; light up, and, most importantly, spend some money. We want your money. Thank you.”

While the mayor encouraged the CWCBE attendees to smoke cannabis, smoking anything indoors is prohibited at the Javitz Center and throughout the Empire State. 

In contrast to the mayor’s pithy and succinct remarks, rapper, author, actor, record producer and Co-Founder of the National Cannabis Party (NCP), Redman went several minutes over his allotted keynote speaker slot. Plugging the NCP, an official Presidential Electoral Party registered with the Federal Elections Commission representing the cannabis industry; the rapper explained that he isn’t representing a specific brand. 

Additionally, while repeatedly calling for unity in the industry, Redman contrarily discussed the Schadenfreude of Jay-Z’s cannabis brand Monogram, which is notoriously unpopular among cannabis aficionados. The rapper remarked that while some celebrities who are true proponents of the plant, such as Wiz Khalifa, deserve to have a cannabis brand, arrivalists, and opportunists, including Jay Z apparently, shouldn’t be white labeling a cannabis brand when he has “never done shit for the industry.”

When discussing the regulated legal cannabis industry in New Jersey, Redman said that “What we should be doing is learning off the mistakes of the West Coast.”

“It’s not about social equity; it’s about equity empowerment,” Redman insisted.  

For the record, Redman admits that he has never been to a New Jersey cannabis dispensary or bought cannabis from a Multi-State Operator (MSO). He still consumes legacy cannabis. 

When Redman was done speaking and came off the Cannabis World Congress & Business Expo stage, he ran into fellow rapper and cannabis brand entrepreneur Spliff Star. The two shared their enthusiasm for how far they’ve come from the rap game to the legal marijuana game and teased one another about the names on their expo badges. 

Redman greets Spliff Star after speaking at CWCBE in NYC. PHOTO Sara Brittany Somerset

Redman’s badge said Sooperman Luver, while Spliff Star’s had his official government name rather than his moniker. 

“This weed game is serious. I’m Mr. Lewis now,” joked Spliff Star. 

“You can’t even say ‘marijuana’ anymore,” Redman lamented. “You have to say, ‘cannabis,’ now.” 

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New York City Mayor Eric Adams, Former Cop, Says ‘Light Up’

At an appearance at the Cannabis World Congress & Business Exposition (CWCBExpo) held June 1 – 3 in New York City, Mayor Eric Adams spoke on Friday and told millions of New Yorkers to “light up.” He told attendees to support even unlicensed businesses during the gray area time period until New York’s market matures.

Mayor Adams was announced as the keynote speaker at the New York CWCBExpo in a press release last month. Other headline speakers included Chris Beals of Weedmaps and Nick Kovacevich of Greelane Holdings. In addition, Tremaine Wright, the Chair of the NYS Cannabis Control Board, shared a rule update.

The mayor did not beat around the bush, as conference attendees were anxious to know what the market will look like. “Enjoy yourself, light up, but most importantly—spend some money,” the Mayor said.

According to Governor Kathy Hochul’s fiscal 2023 spending plan, the state is expected to rake in $1.25 billion in cannabis revenue over the next six years.

While New York’s adult-use retail market hasn’t officially kicked off, locals say there are secret and not-so-secret clubs, trucks, and gifting shops open for business all over that have been popping up since the state approved adult-use in March 2021.

The mayor went on further, saying that he doesn’t plan on cracking down during the transition stage which appears to be in the gray area. “‘Listen, you can’t do this,’ give them a warning,” said Adams. In addition, Adams allocated $5 million in funding from his executive budget to provide the needed boost for New Yorkers to apply for adult-use cultivation licenses.

He also hinted that simple cannabis crimes will be dealt with as a slap on the wrist, providing a few hints to the specifics. “If they refuse to adhere to the rules, then you have to come back and take some form of enforcement actions, such as a summons, such as, you know, talking about their ability to sell alcohol.”

Before becoming the 110th Mayor of New York City, Adams served in the New York Police Department (NYPD) as a cop. In his extended bio, Adams said he chose to join the NYPD because of an earlier incident of police brutality. Adams “was beaten by police in the basement of a precinct house at 15,” but instead of being defeated, he eventually joined the force himself to make changes and decrease the amount of racism in police forces.

Adams even acknowledged the weed trucks that are all over the place in New York City, which are not yet licensed.

“We need to incentivize those who have their illegal trucks or have the trucks going on to show them that this is a better pathway,” he said. “The goal is to not leave people behind.”

The CWCBExpo also featured specialty show floor areas including the Women Grow Pavilion, University Row featuring leading academic cannabis curriculums and programs, and the “LGBTQ+ Proud Mary Lounge.”

A lot of legislative updates were also part of the program. The day before Mayor Adams spoke at the CWCBExpo, the New York Senate, led by Senator Liz Krueger, passed a bill that would have launched a crackdown on illicit cannabis possession and sales. That bill needed approval from the state Assembly before the end of last week to move forward. But Friday came and went, without a vote, stalling the bill until next year.

Earlier this month, New York regulators approved draft regulations that will determine marketing rules under the New York Cannabis Control Board. New York’s market is ready to launch late this year or in early 2023, and New York’s mayor is certainly onboard.

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New York City Crossword

New York, New York, it’s a helluva town. You could go and visit without a set reason because there is so much to do and see. Between the landmarks, food, and culture, New York City is a happening place with a fascinating history. If you’ve never been, it’s time for a trip down the rabbit […]

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This Discreet Manhattan Cannabis Club Gets It Right

New York City remains a bellwether for all things weed. While the internet has improved global connectivity and information sourcing, somewhat lessening the need to visit trailblazing cultural cities such as London or Tokyo, Gotham’s cannabis community is best understood in person. And what better place to do so than at the up-and-coming Astor Club in Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

Launched in January 2020 by three long-time plant advocates and enthusiasts, this club may just be the epicenter’s epicenter. While other cannabis consumption hot spots can justifiably vie for the distinction, Astor Club absolutely deserves its place in the discussion. If a person truly wants to understand the pulse of the region’s cannabis community, then this lounge and its diverse range of consumers is one of the absolute best places to do so. 

Resembling a European cannabis cafe where the herb is sold and consumed on-site, Astor Club has quickly established itself as a must-see destination for tri-state residents and visitors alike.

Featuring a variety of gas strains, the members-only club encourages people to hang around after purchasing, enjoy snacks, drinks, art, visuals—even a dog or two. Founder Ben and his partners Josh and Brett (they asked not to reveal their last names) and a small support team looked to their passions when creating the club’s vibe; embracing art, streetwear, hip-hop and other elements often associated with New York City.

The combined skill sets and credibility of the founders earned the club success in a relatively short period. On any given night, a club member can run into top names in cannabis business, advocacy and cultivation, as well as everyday plant enthusiasts. Various demographics regularly overlap on the numerous sofas and back in the outdoor “smoke spot.” From the super famous to mere civilians, Astor Club is a space for just about any type of cannabis consumer including advocates, plant enthusiasts, industry executives, lawyers and government experts. 

On a recent November evening, a 60-something-year-old retired school teacher turned cannabis supporter sat across from a touring hip-hop production team. The two conversed a bit and rolled joints as the room filled to roughly 30 or so people by 8 p.m. 

As New York City inches toward recreational legalization, with regulators projecting a 2023 launch, Astor Club could serve as a model for what a legal consumption lounge may actually look like. The co-founders claim they’re eager to work with whatever regulations come. Still, like everyone else hoping to participate in the New York market, they, too, await the final rules that will determine their next steps.

Astor Club strives to create and enrich the community through various events including information sessions, brunches, seminars and barbecues. Regardless of the topic, Ben says each event has offered a space where “people can come smoke out and get some information about what’s going on and how they can help in the legalization movement.” 

The success and growing crowds led to what they considered to be the natural decision to launch the club. Ben says, “It really came out of that sense of us just wanting to have a place to continue to connect with those people in New York.” Astor Club also served as an ideal destination for the high-quality, gas strains the founders expect to find at events. 

Matt brings the same enthusiasm for the plant and a love for art, streetwear and hip-hop to the space. His passions can be found in the art on the walls, featuring pieces from Banksy, BK The Artist, Kaws, 1UP and Stash. Prominent streetwear fashion brands such as Aimé Leon Dore, Alife, Camp High, Parra and Patta also play an importance in shaping the club’s culture.

Astor Club regularly attracts several dozen visitors each night, with the weekdays often busier than weekends. Josh believes that the club’s authenticity begins with its founders.

“We all come from a background of cannabis as part of our life,” he says. “Cannabis wasn’t even an industry at the time.”

The hotspot is on its second location after an issue unrelated to their operation booted them from their original space. The forced venue change is standard in cannabis, an industry in which businesses are often ousted either because of anti-pot laws or other loopholes that landlords or other authorities can still use. 

Accessible to members, the current home has security upfront, two indoor lounges in the back and an outdoor section. Situated on a street with various Lower East Side staples, most especially the distinctive smells of Chinese food from neighboring Chinatown, the minimal odor that does escape the venue blends perfectly with the neighborhood. Once inside and past security, a wave of terpene-rich cultivars courtesy of dozens of strains of flower happily overwhelms the senses. 

A small, passionate team of management, security and budtenders help run the daily operations. They include Brett, who came to Astor Club from the food, beverage and hospitality sector. Matt’s friend for more than two decades, Brett went from just being a regular club visitor to manager in record time.

“I started stocking shelves, then it led to budtending,” he says. Now, he operates the lounge’s daily operations and ongoing remodeling. He’s particularly proud of the large TV and newly installed floors as signs of the club’s progression. His optimism is bolstered by what he says is a fast-growing membership base. Access is granted on a referral-only basis. If approved, members can either pay a $200 yearly membership fee or $500 for lifetime access. 

Overall, Brett considers Astor Club a destination for cannabis camaraderie in New York City and that feeling extends to the team. He says that they often engage in family activities, such as eating together on a nightly basis. During our interview, a plethora of sandwiches arrived for the team and guests to enjoy.

Astor Club isn’t the first or only prominent cannabis smoking lounge operating in New York City. Several function in some form or fashion, either as dedicated spaces or pop-ups. However, all too often, these gray market destinations end up like Icarus inching toward the sun, resulting in their eventual shutdown. Brands have survived crackdowns from regulators, rebounding in new locations—but the task is costly on bottom lines and the staff charged with the difficult job. 

With New York’s cannabis laws set to include legalized consumption lounges, Astor Club’s founders are eager to explore their options—be it in that sector or elsewhere. “Depending on what the regulations are will determine what license we get,” Matt said. “Consumption has been a huge part of our lives.”

Since Kathy Hochul was inaugurated governor in August 2021, replacing the decidedly lukewarm legalization supporter Andrew Cuomo, New York’s cannabis program made its first strides towards implementation. After the first appointments of board members to the Office of Cannabis Management in September, additional hires have come, with members seemingly ready to get the market going. As of November 2021, regulators haven’t released rules regarding licensing, and it remains unclear whether consumption lounges resembling Astor Club’s environment will be allowed. 

“There’s too much up in the air for anybody to know,” Ben says.

Josh jumps in on the discussion. “We obviously have our hopes, but at this point, it’s very hard for us to know what’s going to come down the line,” he says. “We’d love to be involved somehow.”

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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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New York Predicts $1.25 Billion in Pot Tax Revenue Over Six Years

New York is poised to collect $1.25 billion in revenue from taxes on legal cannabis sales, according to a budget projection from Democratic Governor Kathy Hochul released on Tuesday. The revenue projections are included in the state budget for next year, which includes significant investment in projects designed to continue the economic and social recovery from the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

“We have the means to immediately respond to the COVID-19 pandemic as well as embrace this once-in-a-generation opportunity for the future with a historic level of funding that is both socially responsible and fiscally prudent,” Hochul said in a statement from the governor’s office.

New York’s state budget for the 2023 fiscal year, which is detailed in an 85-page briefing book from the governor’s office, anticipates $56 million in cannabis revenue, including $40 million collected from license fees on cannabis businesses. State lawmakers legalized recreational cannabis last year, and since taking office in August Hochul has vowed to expedite the regulation of adult-use cannabis stalled by Andrew Cuomo, the former governor who resigned last summer because of a sexual harassment scandal.

Over the next six years, the governor’s office predicts that the state will collect more than $1.25 billion in revenue from taxes and fees on recreational cannabis, with the annual total increasing as more producers, processors and retailers launch their operations. Cannabis tax revenue is expected to increase to $95 million in fiscal year 2024 and reach an estimated $363 million in 2028.

New York Budget Projections Include Revenue from Cannabis ‘Potency Tax’

The taxes on New York’s cannabis industry include a nine percent excise tax and another four percent tax for local governments. The state’s regulations also include a separate tax on THC, with the amount of tax collected rising as the potency of a product rises.

David C. Holland, a New York attorney with extensive experience in cannabis policy and law, says that the “THC potency tax at first seems like the state gouging revenue but, in fact, some view it as being an ingenious, recession-proof tax for the state to receive predictable revenue.”

Holland explained that the tax on THC is levied at a rate ranging from $0.005 (one-half of a penny) per milligram of THC up $0.01 (one cent) per milligram, depending on the form of the cannabis product (i.e. dried flower, extracts or edibles). For example, an edible with 10 mg of THC would be assessed a tax of 10 cents, while a 100mg edible would be taxed one dollar. The THC tax is levied on wholesale transactions, when products are transferred from distributors to retailers.

Holland, who is also the co-founder and president of the NYC Cannabis Industry Association, noted that the tax on THC provides the state government with a revenue stream that is not dependent on the ups and downs of the economy.

“What makes it recession-proof is that the price per pound of cannabis, whether $1,000 in times of shortage, or $200 in times of surplus is irrelevant—the tax on potency remains a constant due to the THC concentration of the raw or processed product, and that tax is uniform across all product lines,” Holland wrote in an email to High Times.

“As such, the tax is really a more predictable revenue source for the state and insulates it against the boom-and-bust cycles of crop cultivation and the idiosyncrasies of market consumers in the forms of cannabis they choose.”

Revenue raised by the nine percent state excise tax will be divided among several social programs, with 40 percent going to education, 40 percent to community reinvestment, and the remaining 20 percent devoted to substance abuse treatment. Income from the additional four percent tax will be shared by local governments, with counties receiving 25 percent and 75 percent going to cities, towns and villages. 

The launch date for legal sales of adult-use cannabis in New York has not yet been determined, but is expected to come later this year or in early 2023.

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‘Wild West’ Hits New York City: Unregulated Cannabis Dispensaries Are Booming

New York state has been in a strange state of legal limbo since cannabis was legalized there last spring. Criminal penalties for simple possession have been lifted, and those for home cultivation within permitted limits are set to be removed by the end of summer 2022. But as of yet, there is no regulatory structure in place for licensing and oversight of a commercial sector and unregulated cannabis sales are booming.

Tremaine Wright, chair of the state’s newly formed Cannabis Control Board last week told local news site Gothamist that the regulations would be issued “this winter or early spring.”

  Some, however, have not been waiting. Last summer, New York City witnessed an explosion in cottage-industry (or perhaps apartment-industry) mini-businesses—with bud, edibles and other cannabis products being hawked from tables set up in parks and sidewalks. Many of these were actual licensed businesses, but not licensed cannabis businesses, because no such licenses exist yet. Generally, these outfits avoided calling monetary transactions “sales,” saying the cannabis product was being offered in exchange for a “donation,” or as a “promotion” for purchase of other (very overpriced) merchandise. 

Now, with the cold weather, actual storefront establishments on this unregulated cannabis model have started to emerge in the city. A burgeoning chain of such establishments has opened shops in two Manhattan neighborhoods. 

An Unregulated Cannabis Chain? 

This enterprise, dubbed Empire Cannabis, opened its first outlet on Eight Ave. and 17th Street in Chelsea in October, and just added a second location, at 172 Allen Street on the Lower East Side, this month. There is absolutely no sense whatsoever of flying below the radar. At the Lower East Side location, the staff wear matching T-shirts emblazoned with the name and cannabis-leaf logo of the business. Glass cases display high-quality bud identified by strain, and a wide array of edible products and cartridges, marked by THC and CBD content. 

Empire Cannabis in New York City. PHOTO Bill Weinberg

This reporter was told that the establishment operates as a private club, and was offered a $50 monthly membership to be able to make purchases. When I explained that I was a journalist on assignment, I was told that only management could speak on the record, and that someone would get back to me. 

The Empire Cannabis website states: “We have taken the blessings of the New York State Legislature allowing the transfer of cannabis without profit and have setup [sic] a membership service in which the club will acquire cannabis products for its members, and only add the cost to facilitate the acquisition and transfer of said products.”

And indeed, the official New York Courts website states that under the Marijuana Regulation & Taxation Act (MRTA), signed into law by then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo last March 31, “it is now legal for a person 21 years of age or older to give or transfer up to three ounces of cannabis and up to twenty-four grams of concentrated cannabis, to another person 21 years of age or older, as long as it is given without any payment.”

 After two days, nobody from the club’s management had replied to Cannabis Now’s queries. However, a report on Business Insider identifies the establishment’s co-owner as Jonathan Elfand. Online searching indicates that Elfand was (or perhaps remains) chief officer of Door to Door 420 Collective, registered in 2015 in Laguna Niguel, in California’s Orange County. This is identified by a registry of California businesses as a nonprofit, presumably operating on a similar model.

Competition with the regulated sector? 

This strategy of unregulated cannabis purveyors conforming to the letter of the law, however narrowly, is viewed with skepticism by some. 

In the Albany area, Greg Kerber, founder and CEO of Gnome Wellness (formerly Gnome Serum), is waiting to open a licensed dispensary in Colonie, a suburb of the state capital. “We’ve been waiting with bated breath to see the licensing process,” he tells Cannabis Now, emphasizing his intention to “play within the lines.”

The company is now offering wholesale and online sales of both food supplements and legal cannabis products, such as tinctures of hemp-derived CBD, often treated with terpenes for a desired effect. He envisions the storefront dispensary operating on a “Weed with Wellness” model, where customers can get both “supplements to boost your immune system amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and some weed to chill out—one-stop shopping to take care of both your health and your anxiety.”

But Kerber worries that his dreams may be undercut by a proliferation of the unregulated cannabis dispensaries—these so-called gray-market outfits—before the regulatory structure is in place. “The problem is getting private equity for people who are doing it the right way, which means the added costs of seed-to-sale tracking and other likely requirements. That makes it harder for us to compete with people who aren’t doing that, who are just opening stores and selling weed. Will capital come into a place where it’s the wild, wild west?” 

Kerber notes an Upstate-Downstate cultural divide in New York. “There’s a lot of tolerance down there—there’s a different mentality up here. A lot of counties are bowing out of the opportunity to sell cannabis. There’s a still a THC-phobia reflecting the long years of propaganda.”

Indeed, Upstate’s Oswego County News noted last month that localities had until Dec. 31 to pass measures that opt out of allowing cannabis businesses within their limits, and more than 400 statewide did so. There are 62 counties in the state of New York, and thousands of municipalities (cities, towns or villages).   

“Will venture capital come into the marketplace if they know we’re immediately competing at a disadvantage?” Kerber asks rhetorically. “Upstate is already an investment desert. Who’s going to make the investment if you’re competing against someone who doesn’t play by the rules? Will these storefronts be allowed to continue to conduct business? It’s wait-and-see at this point, but we’re hoping they’re going to build a fair and equitable process here in New York state.”

The California Comparison 

It’s something of an irony that (for the moment, at least) traditionally no-nonsense New York has a more freewheeling atmosphere for cannabis than California, which first pioneered state-legal sales with the establishment of a medical-marijuana market in the 1990s, and legalized adult-use cannabis in 2016, five years before the Empire State followed suit.

But lots of illicit legacy operators persist in the Golden State, and “door to door” delivery services operate in a similar kind of “gray market”—not regulated, but basically tolerated. And play-by-the-rules operators are similarly complaining about competition from the unregulated cannabis sector.

This was noted in a recent account for Politico. “You don’t have a real cannabis industry if the dominant portion of it has no interest in being legal,” said Adam Spiker, executive director of the Southern California Coalition, a regional cannabis trade association. “There’s no other regulated industry in the world that I know of that operates like that.”

 On Dec. 17, leading California cannabis companies sent a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom and legislative leaders in Sacramento, warning that “our industry is collapsing.” As AP reported, the letter—signed by more than two dozen executives, industry officials and legalization advocates—complained of burdensome taxes and an opt-out provision under which two thirds of the state’s local jurisdictions have no dispensaries. The letter stated that the current system “is rigged for all to fail.”

 Meanwhile, a 2019 audit conducted by the United Cannabis Business Association counted 2,835 unlicensed retailers and delivery services operating in California. By contrast, there were only 873 licensed dispensaries in the state.

In a December interview in New York’s Albany Business Review, a longtime industry leader from California, Steve DeAngelo, offered this warning for his Empire State counterparts: “I think the basic message I have right now is: Don’t repeat the mistakes of California. The essence of the mistake that California made was trying to eliminate the legacy cannabis market rather than trying to integrate the legacy cannabis market.”

DeAngelo, who is now on the East Coast networking with local industry players, said: “California, in 2018, started going through the same transition that New York is going through now. In California, it’s really been a disaster. Today, the unregulated cannabis market in California is three times the size of the regulated legal market in California. The reason for that is pretty simple. The cannabis in California was overtaxed and over-regulated.” 

The post ‘Wild West’ Hits New York City: Unregulated Cannabis Dispensaries Are Booming appeared first on Cannabis Now.

New York City’s Supervised Injection Sites Call for Biden’s Support

Only a few weeks after opening, supervised injection sites in New York City have potentially saved dozens of lives, leading city leaders to call on the Biden administration to authorize the use of similar harm reduction programs nationwide.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and the city’s health department announced on November 30 that the nation’s first publicly recognized overdose prevention centers (OPCs) had commenced operations in the city. Also commonly known as supervised injection sites, OPCs offer people a safe place to consume illicit drugs under the supervision of staff trained to intervene in the event of an overdose.

Other services including clean needle exchange, HIV testing and referrals to addiction treatment programs are often commonly available at supervised injection sites.

De Blasio, who has been calling for an OPC pilot program since 2018, noted that more than 2,000 people died of a drug overdose in New York City in 2020, the highest number since reporting began in 2000. Nationwide, more than 90,000 people died of an overdose in 2020, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the worst year ever recorded.

Supervised Injection Sites Save Lives

Internationally, supervised injection sites have been saving lives for decades. Research over 30 years at more than 100 such facilities has proven the efficacy of such programs. No overdose deaths have ever been recorded at a supervised injection site, and research has also shown that the sites reduce public drug use, litter from syringes and drug-related crime in surrounding neighborhoods.

“After exhaustive study, we know the right path forward to protect the most vulnerable people in our city, and we will not hesitate to take it,” de Blasio said in a statement at the time. “Overdose Prevention Centers are a safe and effective way to address the opioid crisis. I’m proud to show cities in this country that after decades of failure, a smarter approach is possible.”

Council Member Mark Levine, chair of the City Council Health Committee, said that “NYC has taken historic action against the mounting crisis of opioid deaths with the opening of the nation’s first overdose prevention centers.”

“This strategy is proven to save lives, and is desperately needed at a moment when fatalities are rising fast,” Levine added. “I applaud the city as well as the providers who offer these lifesaving services for this bold approach to stopping this crisis.”

The city’s OPCs are operated by outreach and education group New York Harm Reduction Educators, which has opened two supervised injection sites at existing facilities in Harlem and Washington Heights. As of December 14, only two weeks into the program, the two sites had registered 350 participants and staff had already reversed 43 overdoses, according to a report from WNYC/Gothamist.

City Leaders Seek Support from Biden Administration

The success of New York’s OPCs has led a group of city leaders to call on the administration of President Joe Biden to support federal authorization of supervised injection sites nationwide. Under the federal Controlled Substances Act, it is illegal to operate, own or rent a location for the purpose of using illegal drugs. 

In an op-ed published on December 15, New York City Health Commissioner Dr. Dave A. Chokshi, Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark, Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez, Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz and Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance called on Biden to provide legal protection for OPCs to open across the country. 

They noted that in April, New York had joined the cities of San Francisco, Oakland, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Somerville, Massachusetts, in a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland, asking the Justice Department to deprioritize enforcement of federal drug laws against supervised injection sites. But so far, no response has been received from federal officials.

The civic leaders also noted that Biden had recently become the first president to include harm reduction in his drug policy priorities and said that New York’s OPCs could be a model for the nation. Under the American Rescue Plan passed by Congress in March, $30 million was appropriated to state, local and tribal governments and organizations for overdose prevention and harm reduction services.

“It is time to embrace bold strategies in the face of public health crises, even if they may seem radical at first,” they wrote in the BuzzFeed News op-ed. “Thirty years ago, in the midst of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, New York City activists started one of the first syringe service programs in the country and, as a result, reduced HIV transmission among people who inject drugs, averting countless deaths.”

“We urge the Biden administration to endorse overdose prevention centers, empowering state and local jurisdictions to fully leverage their resources and authority to build healthier and safer cities, towns and communities,” the civic leaders concluded.

The post New York City’s Supervised Injection Sites Call for Biden’s Support appeared first on High Times.