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Cannabis Watch: New York marks first legal cannabis sale as prohibition officially ends in the Empire State

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The first legal sale of cannabis in New York state took place Thursday at a brand-new retail pot dispensary run by the nonprofit Housing Works Cannabis Co., as the Empire State’s multibillion-dollar cannabis industry takes its first steps.

The Housing Works store is currently the only one with the state’s official seal for cannabis dispensaries. Housing Works is one of eight nonprofits to obtain one of the initial 36 cannabis licenses issued by the state last month.

Chris Alexander, executive director of the New York State Office of Cannabis Management, stood behind the glass countertop at the store on Eighth Street and Broadway in New York City’s East Village and paid cash for a jar of cannabis flower and some gummies. The cannabis was grown at the farmer-owned and -operated Florist Farms in New York.

Also read: New York issues first retail cannabis licenses to business owners with a past conviction in a first for the sector

“This has been a long road,” said Alexander, referring to the years-long push by cannabis advocates and nonprofits to set up a legal framework in one of the most-populated states in the U.S.

“We have a lot more work to do,” he added. The state is working to open more stores and to get the ball rolling on tax revenue from cannabis sales. New York state has projected that it will collect more than $1.25 billion in pot-tax revenue by 2028.

Housing Works sells cannabis grown by Florist Farms in New York.

Steve Gelsi/MarketWatch

Housing Works Cannabis Co. now has the distinction of being the first legal cannabis dispensary in the state of New York, with public sales officially starting at 4:20 p.m., a time of day that has been a signal for the cannabis-savvy since its roots as a pot reference in 1970s Northern California.

While plenty of uncertainty remains in the cannabis sector over market share, falling prices and competition from larger corporate players and the legacy market, officials at the store’s opening mostly reflected on the years of hard work it took to get to the state’s first legal sale.

Also read: Federal judge shuts down New York State cannabis license rollout in some regions

Unlike the cannabis sold in the many unlicensed locations around the city as well as via word of mouth on the illicit market, the product on the shelves in legal stores is safe and is sold by union workers, officials said.

Tremaine Wright, chair of the New York Cannabis Control Board, attended the Dec. 29 opening of the Housing Works store.

Steve Gelsi/MarketWatch

Income generated from the sale of cannabis will support the efforts of Housing Works to provide housing, legal services and work opportunities for people who have AIDS and are experiencing homelessness.

The Office of Cannabis Management’s Alexander said he is focused on providing social-equity licenses before awarding any licenses to larger commercial operators as a way to correct the harms of the war on drugs.

“Social equity is not ‘a’ thing, it is ‘the’ thing,” Alexander said.

Carlina Rivera, a New York City Council member, said the state stands out as the first “to build equity into the DNA from the ground floor.”

New York City Council member Carlina Rivera also attended the Housing Works store opening.

Steve Gelsi/MarketWatch

Chris King, CEO and co-founder of Housing Works, said the group has seen firsthand the “ravages of the war on drugs” on people who are homeless, HIV-positive people and people of color.

Chris King, CEO of the Housing Works, celebrated the opening of the nonprofit’s cannabis store.

Steve Gelsi/MarketWatch

The nonprofit stepped forward amid the legalization efforts that began in the late 2010s, King said, because “we believe in safe supply ad full decriminalization.”

State Sen. Liz Krueger, one of the key proponents of cannabis legalization in the state legislature, said she doesn’t like cannabis but got behind the issue to help combat the racial discrimination of the war on drugs and to provide more jobs in the legal market.

She said she had noticed that teens in her majority-white neighborhood were using cannabis and not getting arrested, while thousands of young people in neighborhoods of color were getting busted for pot every year.

Krueger cautioned officials about overtaxing cannabis, which she said could impede its ability to compete with the illicit market, but she didn’t elaborate on that issue.

New York State Sen. Liz Krueger was a key supporter of legalization in the state.

Steve Gelsi/MarketWatch

Looking ahead, the Office of Cannabis Management and the New York State Cannabis Control Board plan to issue nearly 120 more licenses to people affected by the war on drugs and to nonprofits.

After that, the state will start allocating licenses to commercial operators for retail stores, although some multistate operators are already providing wholesale cannnabis flower in New York.

Rob DiPisa, chair of the cannabis law group at Cole Schotz, said New York officials managed to launch the market within a relatively short period of time after cannabis became legal in the state.

“The chips were stacked against them,” DiPisa said. “This is a small victory, but there’s a lot more work to do.”

Housing Works traces its roots to 1990, when four members of the AIDS activist group Act Up — King, along with Keith Cylar, Eric Sawyer and Virginia Shubert — decided to do something to help the tens of thousands of homeless men, women and children in New York City living with HIV and AIDS.

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