Victims of drug war seek to reshape cannabis narrative in New York

smacked dispensary cannabis new york

Ever since New York legalized adult-use cannabis in 2021, the nation has had its eyes on the Empire State. Projected to be one of the biggest weed markets in the world, the state sought to emphasize social equity while cementing its place as an anchor of East Coast cannabis culture.

And while the scene is certainly taking off, it’s no secret that the market’s rollout has had its share of challenges. From a seemingly infinite number of unregulated, illicit cannabis retailers to a string of lawsuits delaying the licensure of legitimate operators, the market has seen more than a few hiccups. But it’s not all bad news.

Licenses have started to flow, and legal dispensaries are cropping up across the boroughs. Consumers seeking consistent, lab-tested products in a secure environment finally have access. Social equity licensees are leading the pack—something market rollouts in other states didn’t see. These licenses, called conditional adult-use retail dispensary (CAURD) applicants, give a leg-up to people directly impacted by the war on drugs.

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Lavetta Willis is a general partner of New York Social Equity Impact Ventures, a fund chosen by the State of New York to help give social equity applicants the resources they need. She believes the progress being made in New York is something to be proud of despite the setbacks.

“The (New York) governor recently stated in an article that across the country, there are only 0.2 percent Black and Brown majority-owned retail licenses—in New York, we’re already at 20 percent,” Willis told GreenState.

Willis, along with partner Chris Webber (yes, NBA All-Star Chris Webber), doesn’t just offer financing opportunities for New York’s CAURD applicants. The group, along with the Dormitory Authority of the State of New York (DASNY), locates real estate and buildout locations and delivers turn-key retail storefronts. Once forgotten, they also provide wraparound services to ensure their partners start off on the right foot—and have a path to success for years to come. It’s something the pair saw a dire need for; cannabis retail is not an easy task in any market.

“We realized social equity programs were being introduced all around the country, but they were lacking a financing component,” Willis explained. “Therefore, very few stores were ever going to open. And these licenses are going to fall into the hands of the unintended.”

Willis laments the fact that despite the hard work, illicit dispensaries remain the biggest roadblock for legal operators in New York, whether they’re CAURD licensees or not.

“Tackling the illicit market is paramount,” she asserted. “This is the number one issue that’s going to ground our stores in success: getting rid of illegal stores.”

Setting the bar high

Over in Queens at Terp Bros dispensary, co-founder Jeremy Rivera echoes Willis’ sentiments. He expressed concerns over the safety of illicit dispensaries and the perceived harm they cause not just to the legal industry but to consumers as a whole.

“Many of the illicit shops are tailored towards people under 18,” Rivera noted. “They got potato chips and bags of weed—that’s not what we want for our communities.”

terp bros cannabis new york
Shoppers browse flower offerings at Terp Bros Dispensary in Queens, NY. Photo: Rachelle Gordon

He added that unregulated operations give the broader cannabis market a bad rap and could reinforce negative stereotypes that have played out for decades. Rivera and others like him are specifically concerned about educating new consumers and ensuring they don’t have negative experiences, which could feed stigmas.

Rivera also wants people to understand how “buying legal” has a ripple effect. By supporting CAURD operators, consumers can directly empower restorative justice efforts.

As a formerly incarcerated legacy operator, Rivera strives to set an example for others in the game—letting them know the legal industry brings unprecedented opportunity.

“I want to be that beacon of hope that people understand that change is possible,” he said. “I want people to know that just because you have made mistakes in the past, it doesn’t determine where you’re going in your future. New York is setting the standard for what real social equity looks like when it comes to the cannabis industry for the whole country, giving people who were directly affected by prohibition an opportunity to get into the industry and do something right for their community.”  

RELATED: These cannabis non-profits support restorative justice and patient access 

Back in Lower Manhattan, Smacked Dispensary owner Roland Conner is feeling hopeful. The shop has the distinction of being the first Black-owned CAURD location in the city. The location has seen decent traffic and will soon be opening an event space aimed at building community and celebrating everything his legendary Bleecker Street neighborhood is known for.

“I’m very optimistic about where New York is going as far as the cannabis industry,” Conner told GreenState. “Cannabis is such a cultural thing—music, arts, they’re all intertwined. “We’re on Bleecker Street; Bleecker Street is known for its nightlife, and we want to be a part of that.”

Conner noted that as one of the first CAURD applicants to open his storefront, he hopes to be a resource for others currently in the process and unify social equity operators—it’s another step toward strengthening the marketplace as a whole.

“We were thrown into the situation not really knowing what to expect,” he recalled. “Being able to share that information with other CAURD license holders—we’re looking to be the individuals that can help them with that journey.”

smacked dispensary cannabis new york
Smacked Dispensary on Bleecker Street in New York. Photo: Rachelle Gordon

Blazing a new trail for cannabis

The New York cannabis market has had its fair share of ups and downs, but for Willis and the CAURD applicants she works with, there’s a sense of cautious optimism. The Impact Venture fund is projected to have 24 stores open by 4/20 and hopes to bring 75 or more very soon.  

The uplifting of those impacted by prohibition and other marginalized communities is a measure of New York’s success regarding social equity. A path to restorative justice and a focus on community only seeks to embolden the path. And while roadblocks remain, New York is still on track to be one of the biggest legal cannabis markets in the world—it’s up to the regulators and consumers to make it happen.



Rachelle Gordon

Rachelle Gordon is a cannabis journalist and Editor of She began her weed writing journey in 2015 and has been featured in High Times, CannabisNow, Beard Bros, MG, Skunk, Cannabis and Tech Today, and many others. Rachelle currently splits her time between Minneapolis and Oakland; her favorite cannabis cultivars include Silver Haze and Tangie. Follow Rachelle on Instagram @rachellethewriter