Richard Zahnleuter, General Counsel to New York’s Office of Cannabis Management (OCM), has abruptly resigned from the department just as the state government is beginning its adult-use cannabis rollout.
Who Is Richard Zahnleuter?
As chief attorney to the OCM, Zahnleuter has been one of the public faces known for communicating the state’s evolving cannabis policy. Recently, he appeared in a livestream that introduced the Cannabis Advisory Board, a 13-member panel that will advise state cannabis regulators and help oversee a fund to help communities that have been disproportionately impacted by the War on Drugs.
Zahnleuter was formerly General Counsel to the New York State Department of Health, where he led the 180-member Division of Legal Affairs and represented the entire 6,000-member agency staff. He held this role until his retirement in 2020, but came out of retirement at the OCM’s inception, where he was named the office’s General Counsel in October 2021.
The Office of Cannabis Management’s Statement On Richard Zahnleuter’s Departure
Aaron Ghitelman, Deputy Director of Communications for the OCM, commented on Zahnleuter’s unexpected departure in an email to NY Cannabis Insider. “The entire staff of the Office of Cannabis Management wants to thank Rick Zahnleuter for his work getting the Office up and running,” the statement read. “Rick came out of retirement to lend his expertise to our office as we launched New York’s cannabis industry… Thanks to Rick’s work, the Seeding Opportunity Initiative is in full motion with regulations finalized for the cannabis supply chain; farmers, production facilities, and our first retail dispensaries.”
Ghitelman’s email concluded by emphasizing that the OCM is in “a great place” to bring in a new General Counsel “to shepherd our Office and New York’s Cannabis Industry into the future.”
What Does Zahnleuter’s Decision Mean For The Office Of Cannabis Management?
Some are bothered by the implications of Zahnleuter’s decision to leave at a critical time in setting the foundation of New York’s cannabis industry. Though the OCM has done incredible work in kickstarting the Seeding Opportunity Initiative, the state’s program for putting social equity and justice-involved entrepreneurs in a position to benefit from the legal cannabis sector, there is still much progress to be made. Many local cannabis advocates have pointed to the extreme proposed marketing, advertising and packaging regulations as evidence that the OCM needs to improve its understanding of community needs.
Attorney David Holland, a partner at the Massachusetts and New York-based law firm Prince Lobel & Tye, and CEO/Legal Officer of Empire State NORML, remarked that Zahnleuter’s move “doesn’t come at the most opportune time.”
“No doubt his absence will be noted as together he and the office have overcome so many Herculean tasks in getting the nation’s best and most inclusive program off the ground,” Holland added.
Andrew Schriever, a longtime cannabis attorney soon to join Prince Lobel & Tye’s New York office, and who is also a co-founder with Holland of the New York City Cannabis Industry Association/Hudson Valley Cannabis Industry Association, agreed with his colleague’s assessment. "It's never great when you have the head of a department leaving in the middle of getting the process started,” he observed. “But I'm optimistic that the OCM and [Cannabis Control Board] are practical-minded and they know their setbacks and they'll be able to push forward."
Though Zahnleuter has so far abstained from commenting on his decision, time will tell how fortuitous the move may or may not be for the OCM and New York’s cannabis industry overall.
What’s Next For New York’s Cannabis Industry?
For the moment, the state’s cannabis industry is in ongoing but seemingly happy motion. Over 200 Adult-Use Conditional Cultivator Licenses have been awarded, commencing the 2022 growing season, and the application portal has been opened for Adult-Use Conditional Processor Licenses. Interested applicants can find out more information on the OCM’s website.
Additionally, the OCM and Cannabis Control Board have released regulations for Conditional Adult-Use Retail Dispensary (CAURD) Licenses, declaring that application portal open just last week. According to Governor Kathy Hochul’s directive, the first 100 CAURD licenses will go to justice-involved applicants, defined as entrepreneurs who have had nonviolent cannabis-related offenses or who are directly related - as spouses, children, guardians or dependents - of people with those charges on their records. To see if you qualify, check out the OCM’s website.
Public Comment On The Office Of Cannabis Management's Latest Regulations!
The department has also shared proposed regulations for marketing, advertising, packaging and labeling for the adult-use cannabis market. These regulations are now open for public comment until August 15th.
Anyone who wants to see a robust cannabis industry in New York State, who believes in giving cannabis brands the opportunity to communicate directly to their target consumer base, and who supports a market where people of all skill sets can apply their knowledge to making the cannabis sector successful - please read and comment on these regulations. It is only with active participation and shared knowledge that we make this space the open and enriching industry that we know it can be.
Make your Public Comment known by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or by mailing to New York State Office of Cannabis Management PO Box 2071 Albany, NY 12220 by August 15, 2022!
Stay tuned for more updates on New York’s cannabis program from Honeysuckle!
For more information on the Office of Cannabis Management and the Cannabis Control Board, visit cannabis.ny.gov.
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Featured image: (C) David Tevlock / ABC News 10 via screengrab