NY favors felons, snubs disabled vets in awarding of pot licenses

Albany’s slow recreational cannabis rollout is leaving veterans behind, critics charge.

Advocates say Gov. Kathy Hochul’s administration is discriminating against disabled military vets by prioritizing convicted drug felons when awarding licenses to sell marijuana — and possibly violating the very law that legalized the sale of cannabis in New York.

“The whole veterans community is in an uproar,” said Carmine Fiore, chair of the Cannabis Association of New York’s Veterans Committee and a disabled Army vet.

The Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Action Act of 2021 that legalized the recreational sale of weed designated five “social and economic equity” classes to get 50% of employment opportunities in the budding pot industry — covering those convicted of marijuana-related crimes and “service-disabled veterans,” as well as women and minority-owned businesses and “distressed farmers.”

But so far, the first 300 cannabis dispensary licenses have been set aside solely for applicants found guilty of a pot-related charge or related to someone swept up before the drug’s legalization.

“Only criminal applicants have been allowed to apply,” said Fiore, an FDNY emergency medical technician who served in the Army from 2008 to 2016.


KATHY HOCHUL
Gov. Kathy Hochul’s administration is being accused of discriminating against disabled military vets by prioritizing convicted drug felons.
Mike Groll/Office of Governor Kathy Hochul

Weed World
The Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Action Act of 2021 that legalized the recreational sale of weed designated five “social and economic equity” classes to get 50% of employment opportunities in the budding pot industry.
AFP via Getty Images/ Kena Betancur

Carmine Fiore
Carmine Fiore, 38, who served in the army and as a FDNY EMT has not been able to get a license to sell marijuana.
Stephen Yang

Fiore said Hochul’s administration — via the Office of Cannabis Management and state Cannabis Control Board — is passing over disabled vets and likely flouting the law by shutting them out.

“The OCM’s actions are not only biased and discriminatory against veterans, they are also potentially illegal,” he charged.

Fiore noted that OCM carved out a new “justice class” last spring, creating the Conditional Adult-Use Retail Dispensary (“CAURD”) license for applicants previously convicted of marijuana-related offenses.

“This license category was not included in the MRTA language,” he said, referring to the 2021 legalization legislation.

State officials have allowed ex-cons to “leapfrog” disabled vets under the special license, Fiore added.

While there could be overlap with other so-called social equity groups for the conditional licenses — such as women and minority applicants — disabled veterans are not included because individuals with drug convictions in most instances are ineligible to serve in the armed services, Fiore said.

He also said state officials eased the eligibility for the special licenses for ex-cons compared to the rules that apply to disabled vets and the other groups.

Disabled vets and women and minorities without a felony pot conviction must show that they have the finances necessary to operate and a lease secured for a property to open a weed dispensary.

But under the conditional licenses, ex-cons can be approved without money or a lease and obtain financing via a fund that would dispense business loans, Social Equity Impact Ventures, the group whose ownership included former basketball star Chris Webber. The financing program has largely been a bust, unable to raise the necessary funds to get the program off the ground. 

The exclusion of disabled vets in getting the first licenses to sell weed is just latest controversy in the rocky rollout of the cannabis program.


Carmine Fiore and his family
“Only criminal applicants have been allowed to apply,” said Fiore, an FDNY emergency medical technician who served in the Army from 2008 to 2016.
Stephen Yang

Store manager Josh Poole pours marijuana flowers
The first 300 cannabis dispensary licenses have been set aside solely for applicants found guilty of a pot-related charge or related to someone swept up before the drug’s legalization.
AP/Sue Ogrocki

An estimated 1,500 illicit shops are flourishing in the Big Apple alone by illegally peddling cannabis while not paying taxes, much to the chagrin of New York City Mayor Eric Adams and local law-enforcement officials. Meanwhile, only seven state-licensed marijuana stores have opened in the Empire State.

As part of ongoing state budget talks, the governor and Albany lawmakers are eying a crackdown on black-market weed sellers by dramatically increasing fines and making it easier to shut down rogue operators. Because of the current lenient penalties, illicit pot dealers got so brazen that they even opened up a shop right across from City Hall.

Lawmakers, meanwhile, are going to bat for the disabled vets, including state Sen. Jessica Scarcella-Spanton (D-Staten Island/Brooklyn), who chairs the legislative body’s committee that oversees veterans services.

“We are concerned that the OCM is not following the MRTA as it is written,” Scarcella-Spanton said in a draft letter to Hochul that was being circulated among state senators.

Scarcella-Spanton said the law does not specify that formerly incarcerated individuals with pot convictions would “receive the right to apply [for cannabis licenses] before everyone else.”

She urged Hochul to open up the pool of applicants to include disabled vets and cancel the special program that licenses only those previously convicted of pot offenses.

“Those who have sacrificed to serve their country — especially those who have been injured because of their services or other worthy social equity groups — are currently being overlooked,” Scarcella-Spanton said.


Recent legalization of cannabis in New York
An estimated 1,500 illicit shops are flourishing in the Big Apple alone by illegally peddling cannabis while not paying taxes.
RETMEN/SIPA/Shutterstock

OCM, responding on Hochul’s behalf, defended giving ex-cons priority while saying it is in discussions with veterans about future licensing.

“The Office of Cannabis Management has conducted significant outreach to veterans and veterans groups, including meeting with the Cannabis Association of New York’s Veterans Committee, with Black Veterans for Social Justice, hosting a roundtable at the Veterans in Economic Transition Conference, hosting listening sessions across New York and numerous one-on-one conversations with veterans and advocates,” said spokesman Aaron Ghitelman.

“We will continue to engage with this incredibly talented and entrepreneurial community as we move forward – their voices will continue to be heard and reflected in all of our work.”

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