Legal Weed in New York Was Going to Be a Revolution. What Happened?

Carbone told me that farming was “the most humbling experience you could go through,” and said that it had taught her to let go of many expectations. To raise money and get help with operations, she’d partnered with a company in California, but it hadn’t worked out. Things weren’t going great in that state, either—high taxes and regulatory struggles were sandbagging the legal market. Small businesses were going bankrupt, corporations were moving to less restrictive territory, and the majority of weed purchases were still made illegally. “California is drowning,” Carbone said. “And people are grabbing on to New York as a lifeboat. And now the lifeboat is sinking.”

In the fall of 2023, the O.C.M. convinced a judge that a few licensees should be allowed to proceed. Marte, who’d put hundreds of thousands of dollars into building out his location and was beginning to fear that he had made a life-altering mistake, was one of them. He opened Conbud ten days later, on the corner of Orchard and Delancey, just three blocks from the park where he’d first been arrested for weed. He threw a huge party—Funkmaster Flex d.j.’d, budtenders wore shirts that said “Come Back with a Warrant,” and a camera crew filmed everything for a documentary.

Marte, a natural salesman armed with social connections and a P.R. agent, was about as well equipped as someone in the CAURD program could be. Still, he immediately ran into obstacles. If you searched Google for “weed stores” in his neighborhood, only the illegal ones came up. The law required that cannabis products not be visible from the street, and limited the text a store could print on its signs. (Many weed bodegas, in contrast, had a flamboyant, illegal tackiness.) Marte hustled like old times on the sidewalk, telling people about his store in Spanish and in very basic Chinese.

In October, applications for licenses opened to the general public. Unsure of how the lawsuit would turn out, the O.C.M. urged CAURD licensees to apply again. I took the train back to the Bronx, where the Hub was helping people navigate the process. Northrup sorted through paperwork; the licensees, used to getting worked over by the government, sat by patiently. One of them had given up a restaurant to focus on his dispensary, and was fretting about yet another pivot. On the phone with a business partner, he said, “What if O.C.M. fucks us two times?”

The plaintiffs suing the O.C.M. reached a settlement in late November: the veterans were awarded dispensary licenses, and each medical supplier was given permission to open three dispensaries. CAURD could now proceed. I called Carbone and caught her in a “trim trance,” manicuring her marijuana crop by hand. She and Erik had downsized, on account of the delayed rollout, and were now tending to a half-acre crop mostly on their own. Their pre-rolled joints and gummies were selling at Housing Works and Conbud. But the cost of doing business was punitively high, she said, and the market was fluctuating, with farmers lowering prices to impossible levels just to get their products on the shelves.

“This isn’t an easy state to do business in,” she said. As she saw it, the O.C.M. wasn’t equipped to regulate the legal shops, let alone the unlicensed ones: “Out-of-state indoor flower is on the shelves in legal dispensaries, being sold as ‘greenhouse.’ Growers know this—we know what greenhouse grow looks like—but no one wants to snitch on the dispensaries.” She said that some dispensaries weren’t paying their bills, perhaps in some cases “because they’re saddled with an insane monthly nut” from the state on their storefronts. “And what are we supposed to do about that?”

At the end of the year, I waded through holiday shoppers in Tribeca on my way to the law offices of Cleary Gottlieb, thirty stories up in a high-rise, where Northrup had invited CAURD holders to plan their next steps. People clapped one another on the back as they walked in. Most of them were struggling to find financing. One man, a cabdriver, was still miffed about having to apply for a license twice. For CAURD, he’d needed to show that he had run a successful business, but to get priority in the general round he’d needed to show that he was low-income. “Do you want social equity or do you want to humiliate me?” he said.

Naiomy Guerrero was biding her time, turning down a succession of predatory offers. The language of social equity had come to seem like a cloak for a more brutal capitalist reality. “Many of us want a world that operates on radical principles, but that’s not what we are living,” she said.

Northrup had decided that the best way for him to help was to join the legislature: he was now running for State Assembly. Several licensees lived in his campaign district, in Morningside Heights and West Harlem, and they joked about getting out the vote. He suggested that the licensees organize a trip to Albany to advocate for themselves. “Even if it was just the people in this room, we have power,” he said. The talk continued, and ideas flew alongside grievances and hopes. Could they form a CAURD franchise, and get investors interested in multiple stores? Could they crowdfund? Was it all too late? “If we wait on O.C.M., we’re gonna get screwed,” a man who runs a Jamaican restaurant upstate said. “This is how poor people, like all of us in the room, get marginalized.” Weed bodegas kept opening with crappy product at low prices, and the corporations were right around the corner. “It’s not fair,” Northrup acknowledged, trying to quiet the room. “This is America, and it’s playing out like America.”

In January, I sat down at a bar near Fort Greene Park and looked around for Sirvon, the weed dealer I’d met at the Hub a year and a half before. We’d agreed to have lunch together, at 1 P.M., and he had generously insisted on coming all the way to Brooklyn from Eastchester, in the Bronx. But now snow was falling, for the first time in ages, and at three o’clock I found myself eating shrimp cocktail while engaging in a deeply familiar, almost old-fashioned activity: texting a weed guy to ask his E.T.A.

Sirvon arrived in a hoodie, which he kept pulled up over his head, and wearing a nameplate ring that said “NEW MONEY.” He grew up in the Edenwald Houses, and got locked up for the first time when he was eleven, he said, on a robbery charge. (“My mom’s got seven fucking kids, and she’s taking care of all of us by herself? Nah, I can’t be asking her for money to buy me my little pair of pants.”) He started selling weed not long afterward. He made a business out of it when he was nineteen and expecting his first kid; his supplier got barrels shipped in from Jamaica. “You had Piff, you had Sour, you had Kush,” he said. “None of this Afghanistan Blueberry Sunshine shit.” He started doing deliveries; he expanded and staffed up. “You got people that’s ambitious and hungry, you put them to work together. Then you got people who just like to have a gun and shit—‘O.K., you can be the security guard,’ you feel me?” He was moving half a pound daily, touching a grand in cash a night.

Ineligible for CAURD, he’d continued dealing, but the unlicensed stores had messed up his business—partly by emboldening sellers who were new to the trade. “If you’re coming to Edenwald,” he said, “and you see me and thirteen other niggas standing right there, you’re going to be, like, ‘Fuck that, I’m going to go to the smoke shop.’ And the smoke shop’s got a dusty bag of chips near the counter, so they be taking E.B.T.!” E.B.T. cards cannot be legally used for alcohol, tobacco, or even prepared foods, let alone marijuana, but the unlicensed stores are already operating outside a number of regulatory boundaries, and so might be willing to cross a few more. (A spokesperson at Brewer’s office told me that he’d also heard rumors about shops accepting E.B.T. for weed.) Sirvon’s profits were way down. He would work past midnight and barely clear two hundred dollars.

“It’s not that we know the perfect way to design or implement a cannabis market,” Chris Alexander, of the O.C.M., told me. “Who do we turn to to know the way to do this? It’s just us.” The agency now has around a hundred and fifty employees. “We are not close to where we need to be to handle all that we’re trying to do,” Alexander said. Despite the agency’s missteps, there were victories to claim. Housing Works had done twenty-four million dollars in sales in 2023. A year ago, according to an O.C.M. report, there were only twenty Black-owned dispensaries in the country; by January, New York had added a dozen more. Marte said that sales at Conbud were increasing by five per cent every week. Naiomy Guerrero got a state-issued site for her family’s dispensary, called Nube, and hopes to open it later this year. Howell Miller signed a lease for a dispensary in the Bronx—Two Buds, which he will run with his brother, and which has a grand opening planned for the spring. I e-mailed Anthony Weiner to ask if he remembered his conversation with Miller on the prison track. “Holy shit,” he replied. “Totally remember that dude. So glad to hear he is doing well. Send him my best.”

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