An Interview with Cannabis Attorney Cristina Buccola
Cristina Buccola is a New York-based Cannabis attorney, advisor, and advocate. Most recently, Cristina offered guidance on legalization to New York legislators based on her extensive experience with regulated and inclusive marijuana programs. She sat down with The Leaf to update us on New York’s new law and the progress of social equity in legal Cannabis states.
It took a few years but the New York legislature finally passed a recreational Cannabis bill. Tell us a bit about your efforts to bring a legal marijuana industry to the Empire State.
So, for the last couple of years, I’ve been fortunate enough to work with Start SMART New York, a group that was convened by the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA). Start SMART was instrumental in passing the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA), earlier this year in New York.
I’m licensed to practice in New York, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oregon, and Illinois – so I was able to draw upon my experiences across a wide variety of states. And through experiences in states with different programs that have developed, I had some things to say about the way New York’s program was rolled out – particularly because I saw some real shortcomings in other states. Through working with DPA and testifying to members of the legislature about my experiences and how different regulations worked, it’s been really exciting to participate in the creation of New York’s new law.
How has the state’s program rollout gone so far?
Well, the law calls for an Office of Cannabis and Management (OCM) to be formed in order to set the rules around home grow. That office has not been formed yet. And in addition to the OCM, we also need the Cannabis Control Board, which is a five-person board, to be formed. And these two bodies, along with an advisory committee, really fill out many of the state’s rules and regulations. I cannot overstate the importance of these regulatory bodies and boards to the overall rollout of the program. So much hinges, not only on what they say, but when they’re actually formed.
Social equity is a major component of New York’s Cannabis law. Before we get into the specifics of the program, could you explain generally what social equity is intended to accomplish?
Social equity is intended to look at structural issues of giving people access to Cannabis, but it also identifies those communities who have suffered the most due to the War on Drugs, and gives those individuals an opportunity to participate in the new Cannabis industry.
Is that the same thing as community reinvestment?
No. It’s important to draw a distinction here. Community reinvestment is a concept that runs alongside of social equity, but it isn’t the same thing. Community reinvestment takes into account that, while Cannabis is now a completely legal industry, prohibition has torn families apart. It has destroyed communities. It has really impacted people in the most negative ways. There was literally a war waged against them, and they should be able to benefit from the tax revenue generated by newly legal Cannabis – even if they don’t want to participate in the industry.
And so when we talk about social equity in most circles, it means helping those individuals that have been impacted by the War on Drugs, those who have been marginalized and haven’t been represented in business, and putting them forth and encouraging these individuals to participate in the new industry. Whereas community reinvestment has everything to do with tax revenue and is not Cannabis oriented. So members of the community might be getting training for a job they want, or they might be getting healthcare services for their family. Essentially, the funds are from Cannabis, but their output isn’t.
When it comes to the people who have been disproportionately impacted by marijuana prohibition, those who are interested should absolutely have access to the industry. But those who aren’t interested should still be able to benefit from funds raised through the new law.
And how does New York’s Cannabis law address social equity and community reinvestment?
One of the things that really sets New York apart – actually there are several things that really set New York apart – is the state created a community reinvestment fund that allocates 40% of the Cannabis tax revenue to services for impacted communities. And that is huge. The other thing that’s incredibly interesting is that New York has set a target of issuing 50% of its licenses to social equity applicants.
Who does that include?
That group of people includes individuals from minority communities, disadvantaged farmers, disabled veterans, and women. And in New York, people who come from communities that have been disproportionately impacted, if they have been incarcerated or they have a family member who was, there will be extra priority given to those applications.
What can qualified applicants expect from the new program?
I think that in New York, that could very well look like exclusivity timing for certain social equity applicants – a bit like we’re seeing in Massachusetts right now with the delivery licenses that are exclusively open to equity applicants for the first three years.
Who is making these decisions in New York?
The law calls for a director of social equity who works in the Office of Cannabis Management. And that person, who is yet to be identified, is going to be extraordinarily important in developing the equity program.
How else does New York stand out in regard to equity?
In many other states, we’ve seen that only the most moneyed players can really participate because vertical integration is either required or is allowed. But New York takes some really affirmative steps to break up that chain. So the way the licenses work – essentially, New York makes you pick a lane. Are you going to have a shop and sell to the community? Or are you going to do things behind the scenes? You can’t do both.
So vertical integration is not allowed?
Right. Unless you have a microbusiness license. Microbusinesses will be able to operate in a vertically integrated manner. And so will the 10 existing medical providers under New York’s program. But they will have to go through some kind of step, whether it’s an auction or a licensing fee, to participate in a vertically integrated manner. And the money from that will be used to fund equity programs, which is great.
And, in making businesses choose a lane, New York is opening up opportunities for a variety of different people – because you don’t need a hundred million dollars just to start a business.
Now, that being said, it’s still really expensive to operate a license. It’s still expensive to be in Cannabis. Particularly when you take into consideration things like real estate in New York and labor in New York. And even the best laid equity programs and incubation programs are not going to get around the fact that funding is needed. But identifying licenses where people need less capital to get involved is going to be crucial.
Is there a specific license type you’d like to see the state embrace?
New York is about experiences and nightlife and parties. And one of the things that did not make it into the MRTA, but I really hope comes up in regulation, is a pop-up party license. This could be helpful because you don’t necessarily need a building, which is incredibly expensive in New York. I think a pop-up license could bring a lot of creativity to the industry, and could provide individuals a way to participate that isn’t crippling as far as capital is concerned.
Does New York’s law allow for expungement?
Absolutely it does. I think a pop-up license could bring a lot of creativity to the industry and could provide individuals a way to participate that isn’t crippling as far as capital is concerned.
New York is one of five states that passed legal Cannabis legislation so far this year. New Mexico also legalized marijuana in 2021. However, lawmakers there have a different attitude about equity. New Mexico’s governor has been outspoken about passing an equity bill separately from the legalization law. Do you believe that is a wise approach?
Not if you want equity. I mean, if you want equity, you fight for it. You fight for what you want. And then maybe you settle on something, but you don’t go out of the gate folding your hand. Legalization and equity go hand-in-hand. And I think that if you don’t demand equity from the jump, you don’t get it. I think other states have shown us how difficult it is to claw back equity and develop equity programs when they’re not there from the inception. So, I think taking them separately is a very scary proposition if you are pro justice.