Equity is the cornerstone of the cannabis movement. And with the rise of cannabis business applications in New York City, it’s up to community leaders to help guide future dispensary owners.
Mar Fitzgerald: Manhattan Community Board 2 Chair of Cannabis Licensing and Equity, Race and Justice Committee
Mar Fitzgerald is Chair of Cannabis Licensing and Chair of the Equity, Race and Justice Committee for Manhattan Community Board 2 (CB2), which encompasses the West Village and other prominent downtown Manhattan neighborhoods.
“[These committees] are very connected in my mind, because cannabis legislation is offering opportunities to traditionally marginalized groups,” she says. “That is a part of equity, race, and justice in furthering that mission.”
When the Marihuana Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA) dropped in March 2021, Fitzgerald ensured that her community board would do everything they could to honor the statutes of equity and inclusion within every space of the new market in New York.
The state’s first three dispensaries to open are located in Fitzgerald’s district. She says this wasn’t on purpose, but it makes sense considering her committee’s involvement with the rollout and the location of their district.
“People want to operate here because our neighborhoods are hot,” Fitzgerald claims. “They’re huge shopping, entertainment, and tourist destinations with a lot of foot traffic.”
Cannabis Licensing and Community Quality of Life
For about five years, Fitzgerald has been on CB2’s SLA Liquor Licensing Committee, so she had an inside scoop on how New York might handle the distribution of cannabis licenses.
“I think that the state only had that model to follow,” she claims. “And when I put together the process I followed it loosely, because in my mind dispensaries are retail businesses, not hospitality establishments.”
Fitzgerald describes CB2 as handling the quality of life for district residents, which means she and her peers have to determine how new cannabis businesses will affect their local neighborhoods. All business owners are required to fill out a CB2 questionnaire and meet with the Board before they’re approved to open their doors.
Mar Fitzgerald Talks Bridging the Gap Between Community and Cannabis Businesses
This process can vary depending on the business. When Housing Works proposed their dispensary Housing Works Cannabis Co, Fitzgerald says CB2 recognized the nonprofit’s decades as a successful neighborhood retailer. Roland Conner, owner of Smacked Village and the first justice-involved cannabis licensee, had a legacy of personal community engagement. Union Square Travel Agency, partnered with The Doe Fund, came represented by private operators new to the area, though their recent activity in community relations and education has proven they listened to CB2’s recommendations to “respect the block.”
“We want them to succeed,” Fitzgerald notes of all the dispensaries. “We’re here for them.”
When future cannabis business owners in any category are scouting operating locations, Fitzgerald suggests they take a walk through the neighborhood first.
“Go talk to the neighboring business owners and residents to see if it’s somewhere you really want to be,” she advises. “See if that’s somewhere you can be of benefit to the community.”
Accessible Cannabis Education for New York's Community Members
As an active parent, Fitzgerald is passionate about supporting New York’s education system from a standpoint of equity. In 2016, she co-founded the organization FREE: Families for Real Equity and Education within Education District Two. She emphasizes respecting the block and accessible education, so she often connects CAURD applicants with local block associations, merchant associations, elected officials, and even schools to erase the stigma around the plant.
“We encourage them to go and talk to people and react and find out what the local concerns are,” she explains, “so they can cultivate their business around fitting into the neighborhood.”
New York’s cannabis legalization has brought many concerned parents to worry that the rollout of new cannabis businesses could negatively impact the youth due to easier access to THC-based substances.
As illegal dispensaries increasingly pop up around the city, Fitzgerald and other cannabis advocates have taken action as watchdogs through reporting to law enforcement. “Of course, it’s like Whack-A-Mole,” she claims. “They open right back up.”
Fitzgerald urges people to support regulated legal dispensaries like Smacked Village, rather than illicit companies. “I know that my 12-year-old is not going to be able to walk into a legal dispensary,” she laughs. “That’s a great thing. I want to see an end to illegal and unregulated shops that sell to children. As more legal dispensaries open, and illicit dispensaries are shut down, people will gain a better understanding and maybe even appreciation for these businesses.”
Mar Fitzgerald Talks Advocacy, Legacy Operators, and Social Justice in New York Cannabis
While Fitzgerald does not personally consume cannabis, she grew up in a canna-friendly household, and she appreciates the plant and its benefits. Her advocacy is inspired not only by her father, a life-long cannabis consumer, but also her work on the community board. She witnessed New York afford opportunities to only certain members of her community.
“I wanted to make sure that, at least in our little corner of the universe,” she says, “that this was done correctly and equitably.”
Fitzgerald believes legacy operators have been a key factor in the state’s dispensary rollout. Legacy entrepreneurs have offered education and expertise to government officials and chairs to ensure equity and social justice are a part of New York’s cannabis legalization.
“They’re evangelical,” she says. “[Legacy operators] have a true love of cannabis, and they see it as a personal mission to spread the word and share information. The generosity of the New York cannabis community has been invaluable in helping to create a process to effectively receive and vet incoming cannabis businesses.”
All citizens and cannabis advocates can be a part of the conversation as well. If you want to be involved, make sure to identify who's on your district community board so you know who to contact when it comes to these big community decisions. Even local political clubs such as the Village Independent Democrats (VID), which Fitzgerald has led for the past two years, can help locals with education and involvement within cannabis legislation and business.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity to have a strong voice in your life, community, and city,” Fitzgerald affirms.
To find your NYC Community Board, visit https://boundaries.beta.nyc/.
A version of this article was originally published in Honeysuckle's 16th print edition. Click here to get your copy now!
Find Out More On Social
Featured image: Mar Fitzgerald, Chair of Cannabis Licensing and the Race, Equity and Justice Committee for Manhattan Community Board 2, at the Smacked Village opening in January 2023. (C) Lincoln Anderson, courtesy of Mar Fitzgerald