Can NYC’s Cannabis Experiment Survive? One Dispensary’s Fight For Equity

New York City’s quest to tackle cannabis legalization has been daring, innovative, and simultaneously convoluted, weakly constructed, and misleading. The Office of Cannabis Management (OCM) is New York State’s governing body for legalization. Its primary focus is racial justice and social impact.

Recipients initially received provisional Conditional Adult-Use Retail Dispensary licenses (CAURD) in November of 2022. All were chosen by OCM. They had to meet strict regulations the state created to give back to the victims most affected by the war on drugs.

The guidelines are lengthy and applicants must provide documentation showing they are “justice” involved. Furthermore, applicants must offer proof of where the individual who was convicted of the marijuana-related offense lived at the time of their arrest/conviction, and proof of ownership and control of a qualifying business.

The initial six and then eventually, 30 CAURD winners experienced the greatest feeling of all, the thrill of victory. Part of the requirements to qualify for a CAURD license is that applicants were convicted of a cannabis offense and served time in New York State. 

When OCM announced the winners in late 2022, most CAURD winners felt relief and joy; families’ lives shattered from incarceration were now at the forefront of New York’s stringent programs to give back to those most affected by the war on drugs. With the support of the newly created OCM and the city of New York, 36 initial license holders were poised to pursue their cannabis dreams. 

Queens, NY native Jeremy Rivera founded one of the start-ups that has survived the issues plaguing the NYC market since the CAURD licenses were awarded. He is the owner of Terp Bros, one of the few legal cannabis dispensaries open in NYC. The storefront sits among the local shops in one of the most diverse and culturally inclusive neighbor-hoods in Northwest Queens, which is the largest of the five boroughs in New York City. 

Rivera received his CAURD license after being rejected during the first three rounds. In April of 2022, they were ready to open. He and his partner drained their bank accounts because they are 100% self-funded, justice-involved, and ready to operate. They had given up everything they had saved to get to that point. 

His life story is a combination of survival, determination, and heartache after overcoming years of incarceration. Rivera explained, “In 2015, I had accrued multiple cannabis convictions after serving time as a juvenile. I was full-fledged in gang life from the time I was in middle school. From 17 until now was the longest time I’ve been home from prison, which is five years.”

He continued, “That’s when I realized what the NYPD’s tasks were like when they went into the disproportionately affected neighborhoods. They were utilizing the odor of cannabis and smidgeons of cannabis as a weapon to mass incarcerate us.”

By 2018, Rivera was released after a two-year, non-violent, drug-related prison stint that also included cannabis. He spent his 30th birthday in solitary confinement. “I made the decision to leave the gang life. I was able to get into construction through a family friend. I decided not to participate in gang politics. I was always a good talker and a thinker,” Rivera added.

On Aug. 7, 2023, NY issued yet another injunction to stop the rollout of dispensaries from opening across the state. “This has caused irreparable harm to many who went through the CAURD program and haven’t been able to open up. That is when we started to worry. CAURD wasn’t written into the MRTA laws. CAURD gave opportunities, but it was flawed. I admire the gumption behind it, but it left room to punch holes in it,” Rivera lamented. 

Finally, on Oct. 17, 2023, Terp Bros opened its doors and the community embraced it. Terp Bros supports the CAURD initiative for its intention to encourage members of communities disproportionately impacted by the enforcement of cannabis prohibition, or who qualify as a minority or women-owned business, distressed farmers, or service-disabled veterans. He proudly features women-owned products, legacy brands, and brands owned and operated by veterans. 

Rivera and his team are working with neighboring stores to offer discounts to customers who bring receipts from those businesses. He discussed some of his other social impact efforts, “We did a walk in support of cancer patients and donated baskets. For every lap they did, we gave them $25. We don’t want to partner with big corporations who make it seem homegrown but are not.” 

Rivera concluded, “We’re planning a Thanksgiving Drive. We have a huge local homeless community, and we want to think outside of the box where we know we will be able to have an impact.”

This article first appeared in Volume 5 Issue 3 of Cannabis & Tech Today. Read the full issue here. Images courtesy of Terp Bros, Bonita Photos.

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