With applicants and community boards racing to complete what they say has been a poorly communicated review process, the Office of Cannabis Management is belatedly touring the state to explain things.
Rosalind Adams and Jonathan Custodio, The City
One week after New York state opened the permit process for legal cannabis shops to the general public, community boards across the city have been bombarded by submissions that they are struggling to review.
Under the state’s 2021 law, a retail applicant must notify their local community board at least 30 days before submitting their application to the state and identify their proposed business location. But that provision was barely noticed until now because retail licenses had previously been limited to justice-impacted individuals whose store locations were provided by the state.
Hopeful dispensary operators tell THE CITY they’ve been caught off guard by the poorly-communicated requirement — as have community boards.
“I didn’t know we were gonna get flooded like this,” Manhattan Community Board 3 district manager Susan Stetzer told THE CITY.
The Manhattan board has hired a temporary freelancer to help review the 23 bids for potential pot shops they have received since applications for the general public opened on October 4.
The confusion now threatens to further delay the awarding of general licenses, the latest wrinkle in New York’s troubled licensed cannabis rollout, which has already been marred by months of delays and a slew of lawsuits.
Two years after the launch of the state’s Office of Cannabis Management, only 23 legal shops across the state are selling marijuana even as thousands of unlicensed ones have proliferated in New York City alone, bypassing the boards and the state entirely.
The Office of Cannabis Management did not respond to a request for comment. In a press release on Thursday, the agency said it was hosting a string of workshops across the state to answer questions for potential licensees about its general application process for adult use business licenses.
‘It’s a Lotto Ticket’
While community boards have long played a potent advisory role in making recommendations on liquor licenses applications, they are navigating new territory with pot for the first time. That includes sorting out what it means to vote against a store location, even as dozens of illegal shops may already operate in their community with no license at all.
Community Board 2 in Manhattan — which includes Greenwich Village and the first three dispensaries to open in the state — has already received 65 applications this month, Mar Fitzgerald, who chairs the board’s cannabis committee, told THE CITY.
Fitzgerald said that while she was prepared to some extent after holding hearings for the existing dispensaries, the board was now overwhelmed.
“We’ve really lost the ability to facilitate in-depth community engagement on these upcoming dispensaries in the sheer volume of applications that we have,” said Fitzgerald. “Our community coordinator’s desk is piled high right now.”
At a public hearing on Tuesday, the 22 members of Bronx Community Board 3 overwhelmingly rejected applications that had been submitted just a week earlier for two retail locations in Morrisania and one in Crotona Park, saying that they were concerned about how those shops would impact commercial strips already beset by drug use and gang activities.
Jon Purow, an attorney representing two of the rejected applicants, made a case for the economic and quality of life benefits of a licensed cannabis store, while arguing that unlicensed operations are more likely to sell drugs tainted with pesticides.
“There’s pressure on everyone,” Purow told THE CITY just after the meeting where his clients’ applications were voted down. “We’re up here making presentations not knowing if we’re gonna get the license or not. It’s a lotto ticket. And we’re thrusting this upon community boards that are not prepared for this, have no guidelines. It’s unfortunately created a tough situation for everyone on all sides.”
The board’s co-chair, the Rev. Frederick Crawford, explained at the meeting that, “My main concern is that they’re always looking in The Bronx, in particular this part of The Bronx,”
“You talk about all the positive things it’s doing in the community,” he said. “Well, it should do the same thing in Riverdale. It should do the same thing in Staten Island.”
Other board members applauded in response when he repeated that, “It’s always our community.”
‘The Craziest Thing You’ve Ever Heard Of?’
Community boards all over the city are feeling the effect of the state’s new process, as prospective license holders are sometimes bombarding them with multiple applications to increase their chances in what critics say amounts to a lottery system in which only a handful of qualified applicants will end up with licenses.
Rafael Moure-Punnett, the district manager for Bronx Community Board 6, which covers Bathgate, Belmont, East Tremont, and West Farms, told THE CITY on Thursday that they have received nine applications this month — many from applicants who have applied several times over.
“Applicants are just throwing applications out there in the hopes that they get picked in this kind of lottery system that OCM is using,” he said, noting that the board had received multiple applications for some of the same addresses. “It seems like they’re just doing high volume in the hopes that something sticks.”
In a sign of how haphazard the process has been, Moure-Punnett said that five of the applications the community board has received are for stores that would be within 1,000 feet of the only licensed pot store in The Bronx, despite the law prohibiting stores from being that close to one another, or to places of worship or schools.
Boards have 30 days to review each notification and offer their opinion to the state. That opinion becomes part of an applicant’s file that the state considers when awarding a license. Boards do not have the power to deny an applicant’s license, similar to the liquor license process.
The short timeline means many boards likely will have to seek extensions from OCM— adding another delay for hopeful licensees. And sorting through the applications in October is a heavy lift for community boards that, Stetzer noted, are also voting on their district needs statements and budget priorities for the coming fiscal year.
“You’re gonna have OCM people processing a 30-day extension from 59 boards for every damn application” said Stetzer. “Is this not the craziest thing you’ve ever heard of?”
One more reason for the haste and confusion is that some of the 463 people who received conditional licenses before a court froze that process in August are eligible for what the state is calling “final licenses” as long as they already have secured a lease or a deed. But OCM gave that group just 30 days to get applications in, as well, with the clock starting on October 4 — the same day as for new applicants.
The Office of Cannabis Management said in an email last week that it will begin the review for those final licenses 30 days after the window closes to ensure that everyone meets the 30-day notification window.
At a webinar the Office of Cannabis Management hosted on Thursday to address community board members’ questions and concerns, Executive Director Chris Alexander acknowledged the burden on the community boards.
“We know that you all have been getting inundated with notifications that folks are applying,” said Alexander.
In the question and answer period, one community board member asked how to evaluate three applicants who had applied for the same location.
A second asked about how to respond to applicants who wanted to stay open until two in the morning. A third asked what to do about people who had submitted notifications with a location they believed was non-existent or the site of an active business, making it unlikely that a new tenant could come in.
“I don’t really know what to say there,” Alexander responded. “I don’t know whatever process you all may have to determine that an address is real.”
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