NEW YORK STARTS LEGAL CANNABIS SALES AT 4:20 We chatted with Housing Works Cannabis Co CEO Charles King as the NYC nonprofit prepares to kick off legal cannabis sales in the state of New York today.  Most notably, the 10 cash registers and 4,400 square feet of retail space at 750 Broadway in Manhattan will be the…


We chatted with Housing Works Cannabis Co CEO Charles King as the NYC nonprofit prepares to kick off legal cannabis sales in the state of New York today. 

Most notably, the 10 cash registers and 4,400 square feet of retail space at 750 Broadway in Manhattan will be the only place in the state you’ll be able to get legal weed for months, as other retailers continue to navigate the permitting process. While the idea of this total monopolization may seem off in the era of social equity, given it’s a longtime nonprofit it seems a lot palatable for folks. 

That part is also a double-edged sword. Some fear the Housing Works permit will be pointed to as a sign of intent, when the wider equity program has hiccups like so many have in the past. The officials who screw it up will point to this license to show it was the plan all along to take care of equity and nonprofit permits. That being said, whatever happens next on the regulatory side isn’t Housing Works’ fault and it has as worthy a track record as any nonprofit who might have had the chance to open first. 

Housing Works has provided an array of services to 30,000 homeless and low-income New Yorkers since 1990. The organization identifies as a community of people living with and affected by HIV/AIDS with the mission to end both homelessness and AIDS through advocacy and providing services. A big part of the way it has sustained the mission is creating businesses like the dispensary, a SoHo bookstore, and a network of high-end thrift shops to fund its advocacy. All proceeds from the dispensary go directly back to the nonprofit. 

The staff are excited to open their doors today. 

“”This is a once in a lifetime moment,” said Sasha Nutgent, store manager of Housing Works Cannabis Co. “That said, our nonprofit’s mission remains as urgent as ever. We are eager to take the lead as a social equity model for America’s cannabis industry, specifically with our hiring practices and continued support of individuals and communities disproportionately impacted by the unjust War on Drugs.”

We chatted with Charles King, CEO of Housing Works, late last week as they prepared for the big day. 

“So we actually approached Gov. Cuomo in his office three years ago about Housing Works being able to obtain a license for retail cannabis sales,” King told L.A. Weekly. “We’ve been pressing the agenda of nonprofits that serve people who have been criminalized by cannabis, due to cannabis related offenses, having the opportunity to enter in the market. That’s part of our reason for doing this.”

King argues one of the reasons it’s been such a long rollout for New York was establishing mechanisms different from any other state in terms of advancing equity interests.

“That said, I think there’s a big question about whether what New York is doing will actually go far enough to accomplish its equity agenda,” King argued. “Housing Works is a large organization where we’re well-capitalized, so we’re prepared to invest up to a million dollars, some to make our cannabis retail work and make it profitable.”

King knows the state is preparing to invest money to back social equity licenses, he’s just not sure it will be nearly enough to be competitive. This would lead to the worst-case scenario of equity license holders turning into figureheads as they attempt to raise the capital they need to stay open. 

“I think that’s going to be the big test,” King said. “We’ve seen it in other jurisdictions, where equity license holders have ended up simply essentially being front people for commercial cannabis. And we certainly don’t want that to happen here.”

Housing Works plans on taking a very hands-on approach on its quest to help the New York social equity movement. For starters, it’s hiring people who have criminal records for cannabis, but it goes so much deeper than that. 

“We’re also developing training programs, not only to help people to advance in management, even with our competitors,” King said.

King hopes that program will help start people’s own journeys to go from cannabis conviction to dispensary owner. 

“We’re negotiating with the Office of Cannabis Management to help people, to allow people to go through a training program with us,” King said. “That would get them credentialed as having met the entrepreneurial requirements for obtaining their own license, and then we would help them with their license application, help them get up and running, so that they can genuinely have an opportunity to enter into business on their own without having to be proxy for some commercial investor.”

Given Housing Works’ wider history of community service, we asked if there was any push back on the team when the conversations about the dispensary started. The organization is no stranger to the subjects around drugs many Americans avoid. 

“We are a harm-reduction organization. We were, over 30 years ago, we were the first organization in the country to house people with substance use disorder without any restrictions on their personal use in the privacy of their home. We didn’t place any drug- and alcohol-free conditions on people moving into supportive housing,” King said. 

Additionally, Housing Works runs two of the largest syringe exchange programs in the state. 

“So, even though we’re a licensed drug treatment provider, our license is very explicit that we use a harm-reduction approach,” King said. “Our goal has never been abstinence, it’s always to help people manage their use in ways that give them effective control over their lives.”

King thinks it’s been more interesting to hear the response from the public who clearly don’t really understand who they are and what it is that they do.

Housing Works expects to be able to offer about 75 to 100 products from six different brands on opening day. As testing gets in order around the state, they expect to be up to about 24 brands to pick from in February. It’s a safe bet every cultivation site in the state will be hoping for shelf space. 

As with many dispensaries across America, they’re currently cash only. There was a recent sweep of offshore merchant services companies prodigy services to the industry, so it’s a little trickier than bouncing from one to the other at the moment. This is even the case for shops that have been open for decades. 

House of Puff is one of the brands on shelves today at Housing Works.

“For years, advocates and members of New York’s cannabis community have been working toward this momentous milestone; the first adult-use dispensary opening its doors, stocked with brands and products grown, processed, manufactured and owned right here in New York,” said Kristina Lopez Adduci, CEO and founder of House of Puff. “We are ecstatic that House of Puff will be one of those New York brands that will be available for purchase and thank Housing Works for supporting us and other local cannabis companies during this crucial moment.” 

Lopez Adduci was also excited as to what the dispensary meant to the broader goals for legalization. 

“The opening of their dispensary is just one embodiment of the vision set out by the MRTA and is a significant step towards establishing a fully operable and equitable legal cannabis industry built by and for New Yorkers and our communities most adversely affected by cannabis prohibition,” she said. 

The Cannabis Association of New York also weighed in on today’s first sales.

“Since the MRTA was signed, now nearly two years ago, we have all been envisioning the moment that legal adult-use sales would finally launch here in New York,” said Allan Gandelman, President of CANY. “The state’s first recreational dispensary opening its doors with shelves stocked full of New York-owned-and-operated brands, including products grown and processed by CANY members, is a culmination of all the hard work, dedication and advocacy of the cannabis community over the past several years. We applaud Housing Works for being mindful and supportive of this vision and congratulate them on their entrance into the industry.”

Gandelman went on to note that while the moment feels surreal, everyone hopes it’s just one of many upcoming milestones.  

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