Current New York residents who were incarcerated on marijuana offenses are now eligible to apply for business licenses to open the state’s first retail cannabis dispensaries, reports the New York Times.
Unlike any other state, New York is reserving the four-year licenses for business owners who have been convicted of marijuana-related offenses in a New York State court. When approved, the budding entrepreneurs will be permitted to sell cannabis to any adult as early as this year.
As of last Sunday, over 500 applicants have applied for licenses.
Hector Bonilla falls into this category. After serving time for marijuana-related charges, he’s now one of many applying to open his first dispensary.
Bonilla, who’s now a taxicab driver, said his criminal record has made it almost impossible to find gainful employment.
“Now, over 20 years later, it’s my free ticket to this,” he said, pointing to a laptop screen.
The licensing effort seeks to rectify some of the damage caused by the “War on Drugs." Since its inception, the policies have been highly criticized for disproportionately targeting communities of color and using drug use as a crime instead of focusing on rehabilitation. Although drugs are consumed at almost identical rates in America, Black and Latino residents have been imprisoned at far higher rates than their white counterparts.
To fund the initiative, state lawmakers have earmarked $50 million to launch an investment fund “that aims to draw money from the private sector and provide applicants with turnkey properties and start-up loans.” Interestingly, no spaces have been leased, no contractors have been hired to build them out, and no additional money has been raised toward the fund’s $200 million goal since the initial announcement of the program.
“Where is the money? Where is the support?” said Regina Smith, the executive director of the Harlem Business Alliance, a nonprofit promoting Black entrepreneurship that has helped several license applicants. “We want to be in position to get out there first. But the way it’s unfolding now, it’s highly unlikely.”
Bonilla said that he wants to be an example of how the state’s program can work and he hopes to pass the business down to his son.
“I have something to prove,” he said. “I want to do a good job because to take this opportunity and be grateful for it and actually do good, it could show a lot. People could do this if they have a lot more opportunities. I really believe that.”
Howell Miller, another applicant, is planning to set up shop in the Bronx, where he began packaging marijuana when he was just 10 years old.
In 2005, he was arrested for shipping a package of marijuana from Arizona to New York. He pleaded guilty to possession with the intent to distribute and was sentenced to 18 months in prison along with three years of probation. Upon his release, he launched a successful construction business that employed 23 workers. The business went under after he returned to prison in 2012 for smuggling over 11 tons of marijuana from Mexico to New York.
“I used to sell illegally and make millions,” he said, adding, “I’m a good businessman and a terrible criminal. So let’s do it legit now.”
According to an industry report, New York’s cannabis industry is expected to grow to include 900 retail licenses and generate $4.2 billion in revenue by 2027.