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Pot preference for ‘justice involved’ gives pause to law enforcement

New York took a big step toward opening its first licensed retail marijuana dispensaries when the Office of Cannabis Management adopted regulations on March 10 that could see some stores up and running by the end of the calendar year.

The proposed rules place ‘justice-involved’ individuals at the head of the line for winning the right to open a storefront dispensary – a priority in the 2021 law paving the way for recreational marijuana sales in New York State.

The newly issued regulations would require a person seeking a dispensary license to show proof of conviction for a pot-related offense in New York State prior to March 31, 2021, or have a family member convicted prior to March 31, 2021 on a pot charge.

The agency says it will evaluate license applicants based on criteria including whether the justice-involved individual had as his or her primary residence a home in an area with “historically high rates of arrest, conviction, or incarceration” for marijuana-related offenses, lived in an area with historically low median income, or lived in public housing. And, they promise, OCM will “actively promote applicants from communities disproportionately impacted by cannabis prohibition, and promote racial, ethnic, and gender diversity when issuing licenses for adult-use cannabis related activities.”

Otsego County District Attorney John Muehl was critical of the state’s plans for start-up licenses.

“We want criminals running a business like this?” he said. Sarcastically, he added, “What a fantastic idea. Here we are rewarding people who couldn’t follow the law in the first place.”

“We’re treating them like victims,” he said of those with prior convictions. “It’s like it’s no big deal that they broke the law. It’s an unfortunate situation.”

In an interview on WAMC radio last week, Albany County District Attorney David Soares, a Democrat, said, “It’s not the marijuana that’s been the cause of violence, it’s the protection of the illicit marijuana industry in urban centers that have been the cause of violence. And so to reward individuals who’ve been at the forefront of those offenses is just to me breathtaking.”

State officials are leaning hard into the economic justice part of the equation.

“For decades, the prohibition against cannabis was disproportionately enforced against black and brown New Yorkers, disrupting lives and communities,” said OCM spokesman Freeman Klopott. “To help offset those harms, New York’s new Cannabis Law, enacted last year, prioritizes those impacted the most for licenses in the new industry.”

“The Seeding Opportunity Initiative announced last week implements the intention of that law by prioritizing those with cannabis convictions for licenses to own a retail dispensary while also requiring that they have owned a successful business,” he said. “In other words, the Initiative prioritizes those who got a second chance and made the most of it by building a business that’s already part of our communities. Other states opened their markets with big-out-state, businesses, but in New York, we’re prioritizing small farmers and small businesses to open ours.”

At this time, it appears the agency has set no limit on the total number of retail licenses it plans to authorize – officials there said that will depend on customer demand. Locally, officials are not certain of the extent to which the regulatory lean will affect Otsego County’s opportunities for early license approvals.

Village of Cooperstown Mayor Ellen Tillapaugh acknowledged the underpinning intent of the state’s new marijuana sales law.

“The focus of the legislation was always on communities adversely impacted by prior enforcement – 50 percent of licenses and also a focus on minority and women-owned business enterprises,” she said. “So a small rural community like Cooperstown was not going to be at the top of the list.”

“However,” she said, “there are local individuals who are interested in having a retail location here, so they will be applying for a license.”

“There’s no doubt prohibition affected more urban areas,” said Village of Cooperstown Trustee MacGuire Benton, a vocal supporter of allowing a dispensary within village limits. “It’s probably unrealistic to think that Cooperstown would definitely get a license from the start, but I know there are entrepreneurs in town who are interested.”

“One of the pillars of this legislation was righting some wrongs in the criminal justice system,” he said. “Nobody should have been sitting in jail and incarcerated because they sold some weed.”

At the same March 10 meeting, the Office of Cannabis Management approved a license application beginning March 15, 2022 for hemp farmers seeking to grow adult-use cannabis beginning in the spring. The ‘Adult-Use Conditional Cultivator License’ process comes from a law Governor Kathy Hochul signed one month ago.

The ‘Farmers First’ program provides a cultivator license to eligible New York cannabinoid hemp farmers, giving them the first chance to grow cannabis for New York’s adult-use market. Farmers will be required to follow quality assurance, health, and safety requirements developed by the OCM and must take part in sustainability and equity mentorship programs “that will help build the first generation of equity cannabis owners across the entire supply chain,” the OCM said.

Mr. Benton applauded the focus on farmers.

“I’m hopeful that the push for cultivation licenses will be a big boost to Otsego County,” he said. “I think that by prioritizing farmers, that’s where we’ll see the real benefits locally. It’s entirely possible that it will be awhile before we get a retail dispensary, but the farmers can get to work right away.”

State lawmakers are currently weighing Governor Hochul’s state budget proposal for a $200 million fund to “make funding available for equity entrepreneurs at the forefront of the adult-use cannabis market.” Her office says the program would direct finds for industry licensing fees, leasing, construction, and renovations at “prime locations” to meet health, safety, and security requirements.

The retail dispensary regulations remain open for comment through the OCM’s website (; at press time, the site also contained information regarding the cultivation license process.



  1. “Justice Involved”? That’s what’s wrong with the nation today. I could think of better words, Law, Breaker or Criminal. What about the “justice Involved” who sold pot and now their buyers went on the use hard drugs.
    It makes you embarrassed to say I never broke any laws. Let’s get rid of these “Social Dreamers” they are ruining the country.

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