By Annette Fernandez
I just got back from “walking the dog” literally and figuratively. I smoked a beautiful haze strain known as Fidel Gastro, a Cuban Haze and Sour Diesel cross that is perfect for writing this piece here on what can happen in a year… Yeah, 525,600 minutes in a space that has taught me so much about who I am and has emboldened me in my quest to support my community of Washington Heights.
It’s Saturday March 4th, 2023 and it’s been a year since I left my job in the corporate world to go full-time into cannabis advocacy. I’ve participated in the space for most of my life as a patient, but in the past twelve months especially I’ve been able to co-found a variety of advocacy organizations, help conceptualize and build brands, and dedicate my efforts toward strengthening a women-centric consumption culture that New York truly needs.
A Year in New York Cannabis: The Office Of Cannabis Management and the Conditional Adult Use Retail Dispensary (CAURD) License Program
On this Saturday, it’s been publicized that the Office of Cannabis Management (OCM) has just made an announcement. Let’s be clear, any time the OCM makes an “announcement” it rocks the community. The Office announced that they will be awarding a whopping 300 Conditional Adult Use Retail Dispensary (CAURD) licenses—150 were originally expected. This sent shockwaves through the anxious community of cannabis economy stakeholders.
In a year, we have seen the market blow up from about 700 non-licensed operators to now upwards of 2000 outlets for cannabis (an issue which the mayor and the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office have vowed to confront, but so far haven’t seemed to make much progress in tackling). We have just come off a weekend where a well-known celebrity attended a well-known unlicensed establishment that may or may not have their names on NY license plates and is a multi-million dollar entity that could flip the switch on major litigation. Meanwhile back at the ranch, folks are anxiously awaiting their CAURD number to be called—only to have to be prepared to scour the NY real estate landscape for the property required for licensure. Are you exhausted yet, because we are? In a community so focused on lack right now, the innovation and collaboration is sometimes crushed by abounding mental health issues and trauma bonding beyond anything one is prepared to deal with if they are not a licensed mental health practitioner.
How Can New York Cannabis Support Social Equity and BIPOC Entrepreneurs?
The epiphany: How did we expect that in a system as chaotic as in New York, where inequity permeates through every side deal and hustle, we could expect anything else than chaos? Because public policy always falls short somewhere when it comes to those most impacted by the War on Drugs. Like many activists out there say, how can people think about becoming entrepreneurs if they don’t have basic needs of housing, health and safety met first?!
The unfortunate reality is that the market is getting crushed by oversaturation and the proliferation of unlicensed brick and mortar spots. Investors are pulling back and so women, Black and brown entrepreneurs are having a hard time finding backing in an almost non-existent pool.
But wait, a year later, there is still hope. New York’s big dirty secret is that we are community minded folks; we love our hoods and when it comes to the cannabis community, we are focused on the collective determination for equity in New York. We know it will take accountability for our regulators and partners in building this economy and a consistency in our participation in our civic duty as cannabis constituents in New York. It will take a crescendo of inclusive voices to keep us on task and moving forward. There are those out there who are innovating and thinking about how they can use their gifts in this economy for prosperity.
I was elated to recently see Wolf Stoner Queen display her own branded rolling papers along with custom rainbow tips! Now there is some follow through and capitalization of your brand! These are the moments that bring me joy and hope for all of us.
Supporting Women-Owned Brands in New York Cannabis
Another thing: when we feel down in the dumps about how challenging it is to build a new economy from scratch, we should think about what a force the women in New York cannabis are. These are women who have built brands, non profits, who have been retail operators, marketers, business owners, legacy operators and more. Women like Miriam Aristy-Farer of Herbas, Jamie Galvis of Hustle + Flo, Brittany Carbone of Tonic Vibes/Tricolla Farms and Vic Styles of Black Girls Smoke are and have been doing the real work for years, just to name a few.
There is also a genuine need in the community for female-focused affinity spaces, safe spaces, in cannabis consumption. Consumption culture in New York has historically been male-driven, and continues to be, but there is so much more room for women-led spaces. The CannaDiva, HighGarden, and many more are leading the charge to change the narrative.
What Should Investors Entering New York Cannabis Know?
In a year, I’ve also witnessed cannabis investors grow bearish on NY cannabis. I believe there is justification in some of that conservatism but I also know that the authenticity in this market and the culture is priceless and New York is a giant market maker. Investors should do something that they don’t normally do in the U.S. Women and BIPOC-led businesses are woefully underfunded in this country; Harvard Business Review noted that women-founded startups receive less than 3 percent of all venture capital investments, while TechCrunch’s data showed that BIPOC-owned companies dropped from 1.3 percent funding in 2021 to 1.0 in 2022.
These investors should look to help support all of the gems coming out of the legacy market, they should help build bridges for legacy growers who care for this plant and talk about it so poetically you know it’s pure love. They should invest in the single mom who has been building an edible brand for years and working on her formulas like a scientist in a lab. They should invest in the Black and brown women who are strategically building a brand, studying their customers, and providing an experience that centers a new woman for a transformational time in our world.
A year later, I am cautiously optimistic. I am sustained in this passion and putting one foot in front of the other when it comes to delivering on the vision I have to one day contribute millions of dollars back to Washington Heights for childhood enrichment. There is tremendous opportunity ahead but the spoils will go to those who realize what a long-a** game this is going to be and how it’s going to be important to work collaboratively and patiently as the adult use market continues to develop.
Born to a Dominican father and Puerto Rican mother and raised in Washington Heights, NYC, Annette Fernandez is a community activist who founded the Women’s Walking Crew (WWC) during the global pandemic as a way to build bridges. She is a member of the Uptown Gun Violence Prevention Task Force and is the co-founder of several cannabis advocacy groups. Fernandez has had over twenty years of experience building teams and businesses in the retail and finance sectors, working with world-premier brands including Victoria's Secret and The Gap. Now a full-time cannabis advocate, she believes cannabis to be the unlocking factor for restorative justice and economics in communities like the Heights all over NY. For more about her work, follow her on Instagram at @afernandezny and @la_casa_lola.
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Featured image: Annette Fernandez (C) Cruz Caldera @cruzcalderacreative