New York marks a major milestone in legalizing cannabis: A dispensary opened by a man caught up in the war on drugs

When the marijuana war came to his New York City housing project decades ago, Roland Conner found himself in and out of jail. It was a time he didn’t want to talk about.

Now, at age 50, he’s opened the state’s first legal cannabis dispensary run by someone who was once punished under New York’s antiquated, prohibitionist drug laws.

The store in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, called “Smacked,” opened to the public on Tuesday with state support. It is the second legal place in New York to buy recreational marijuana, but the first to benefit from a program that sets aside dispensary licenses for people with related criminal convictions.

Conner also received support from a $200 million public-private fund to help “social equity” applicants for tight control over the supply of dispensary licenses in the state. The money is intended to help with the damages of the war on drugs, especially in communities of color.

“When people come together passionately to fix something, they can make things happen. And I’m a living example of that right now,” Conner said as he prepared to open the store.

New York legalized the recreational use of marijuana in March 2021 but the state-licensed market for the drug has been slow to move. The first 36 licenses were awarded in November. State officials reserved 150 dispensary licenses in the initial wave of applicants for people with previous convictions for marijuana offenses.

Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, hopes Conner’s business will serve as a model for other businesses.

“This dispensary is the latest example of our efforts to build the most equitable and inclusive cannabis industry in the country,” Hochul said in a statement last week. “As we continue to work to right the wrongs of the past, I look forward to new dispensaries – owned by those affected by the over-policing of cannabis prohibition – opening soon.”

Like many others, Conner was locked up for relatively minor offenses in his youth. A conviction in 1991 put him in exile for months. Talking about it now, he says, just brings back the trauma.

For the past 15 years, he has operated a property management business and he currently manages a transitional housing facility in the Bronx. That gave him the business experience needed to qualify for a dispensary license.

Smacked is opening as a pop-up dispensary while work is being completed on the storefront. His wife, Patricia, and son, Darius, will operate the store with him.

They have to compete with many illegal dispensaries in New York that have been operating for a long time. When he opened his store, Conner realized that another unlicensed store would soon open nearby.

Conner remembers his youth, when marijuana was part of everyday life. He grew up in the projects, in a poverty-stricken area of ​​New York called the Far Rockaways, where some young men spend time getting high.

“We are poor. Like any housing project in New York City, it was full of poverty and drugs,” he said. “We were very hungry, but my mother did her best to make sure we were always fed.”

The police regularly patrolled the projects, he recalled. “Sometimes they go up and down the block and we see them come in or they just come out of nowhere,” he said. “They will come and look for us. And if they find some kind of drugs in you, they’ll just lock you up.”

“In 1991, I started getting locked up for cannabis and I was just smoking on the streets at that point. It was a long time ago,” he said.

Years later, when his son started selling marijuana to help support his family, Conner became concerned.

“When I saw my son coming down this road,” she said, “I didn’t want him to start going down that particular road and block himself.”

With the state opening up a legal market, Conner and his family decided to take a chance and apply for a dispensary license.

“I had to step back and just listen to my dad and find a way,” said his son Darius.

“He said there’s a legal way to do what I’m doing now,” Darius Conner said. “At the end of the day, I really want to go about it the right way.”

Officials said Conner received support from the Bronx Cannabis Hub, which was established by the Bronx Defenders and the Bronx Community Foundation to support individuals applying for the first round of licenses.

Federal data show the same percentage of white and black people who use marijuana, but the arrest rate for black people is much higher, according to reports by the American Civil Liberties Union and others. yet.

“When people are in poverty, they do some things they wouldn’t normally do,” Conner said. “And so if you don’t talk about poverty and you just talk about violent law enforcement without talking about why people do the things they do – it’s problematic.”

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