Even though New York likely won’t have cannabis retail until 2023, as per state regulators, the local cannabis communities managed to celebrate legalization victories at this year’s NORML FORML. The event belatedly honored 50-plus years that NORML – the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws – has worked to achieve not only a legal cannabis market but fair legislation and accessibility for patients and consumers across the board, as well as reparations for communities adversely affected by the War on Drugs.

Held at the famous Sid Gold’s Request Room in Chelsea, and in conjunction with the Cannabis World Congress & Business Expo (CWCBExpo), the NORML FORML gathered advocates, professionals and community leaders from the tri-state area for a unique gala. Speakers ranged from NORML Development Director Jenn Michele Pedini to attorney David Holland, co-founder of the New York City/Hudson Valley Cannabis Industry Association, to Colleen Hughes, founder of the Creative Consulting Consortium. In a particularly jubilant moment, Hughes and human rights activist Shellise “Sistah” Rogers, founder of the solution design business consultancy Sistah Rogers LLC, were announced as the incoming leaders for NYC NORML.

Music by artists Baba Israel and Black Rose flowed and got the whole room vibing to freedom-tinged tunes. The crowd included longtime luminaries Sarah Stenuf, founder of the nonprofit Veteran’s Ananda; attorney David Feldman, co-founder of Skip Intro Advisors; pioneering cannabis journalist Steve Bloom, editor of CelebStoner, and many more. Melissa Gibson, founder of Hemp and Humanity, provided the event's whimsical gift bags. Meanwhile, emcee KymB, co-founder of the cannabis brand TribeTokes and a noted voice in community advocacy, kept the event moving swiftly and “had the magic touch” with fabulous giveaway prizes.

Michael O’Malley, founder of the innovative Curved Papers and a NORML supporter of many years, came up with the initial idea of the NORML FORML in 2019. He told Honeysuckle what it was like organizing this year’s event, what makes New York cannabis and legalization distinctive, and how NORML will shape the culture for generations to come.

Black Rose at NORML FORML 2021 (C) Curved Papers

MICHAEL O’MALLEY: We recognized that and were so excited, having been involved with the MRTA process for so many years. And glad we were able to do it, having pushed the event back from the Spring, and having had to cancel the 2020 version; even the online replacement version was canceled because of the George Floyd murder and subsequent protests, which consumed everybody during that time. The theme then was to celebrate 50 years of NORML, but that was never able to happen and was still [going to] be the theme of the next one when [Andrew] Cuomo folded like a house of cards and legalization finally happened, and in such a good way. So we combined the two and had a dual theme in the tagline of the event this year: "A legalization celebration 50 years in the making," which was coined by Jenn Michelle Pedini, of National NORML, one of the three founding partners of the NORML FORML, along with CWCBExpo and Curved Papers. It was also the first year where we could roll joints and smoke joints in the street.

The way the legalization went down, with Cuomo coming up with the [never-passed Cannabis Regulation and Tax Act] after having co-opted the original process in 2015 where NY became a "no flower" medical state, with a really stupid program that very few people used, that was completely dominated by big investment interests from the national cannabis scene, who have still come out big winners under the law we have, though the regs are still being formulated, and maybe we can be the state that implements equity promises of our new industry under this groundbreaking law.

What was the original concept behind the NORML FORML?

The NORML FORML is a grassroots New York thing that I founded myself. I am Brooklyn born and I've worked in every building in Manhattan. My family is centered here. My company is a New York State company. We are licensees of NORML, and make 100% organic hemp NORML Curved Papers that pay a royalty that supports NORML’s activities. As a NORML supporter and a New Yorker, I came to the idea that NORML should have a gala fundraiser in the city, like so many other nonprofits. It's the backbone of many annual nonprofit budgets. I got the idea from my sister's company, Lifetime Arts, which does a lot of different kinds of fundraising to deliver services by artists to the aging. It's become a field called Creative Aging… I mentioned that NORML should have a formal fundraiser in Manhattan every year, and my younger child Joseph came up with the name, the NORML FORML. So we ran the first one and split the funds raised between National NORML and our local Chapters, at a time when we were still fighting very hard for legalization here.

This year the three local NORML Chapters helped us produce the event: NYC NORML, Empire State NORML and [Long Island] NORML. [NYC NORML’s Interim Executive Director] Ryan Lepore spoke and introduced new leadership for NYC NORML, Shellise Rogers and Colleen Hughes; [Colleen] also gave a rousing speech that night. Baba Israel is another NYC NORML affiliate who rocked the house as our headlining entertainer with his troupe from Cannabis, A Viper Vaudeville. The NYC Canna Fam extends to friends of NORML, of legalization, from the corporate to the community advocates, from the political leaders to the protesters, and they all come to the NORML FORML.

Kym B, Kenny Mack and Melissa Gibson at NORML FORML 2021 (C) Curved Papers

What do you think is most unique about the NYC cannabis community?

The NYC Cannabis community is so big, it's the biggest and has been for a century. It's also truly diverse. When I was young, New York was the distinctly most diverse city in the world. Now many cities are like ours in this way.

Why does it matter for the NORML FORML to work in conjunction with the CWCBExpo?

It's just a historic fact, how it happened. When we came up with the idea of the NORML FORML, I took it to CWCBExpo, and to be precise, Polsinelli Public Affairs, PPA, who were running events around the show at Javits in 2019. Fred Polsinelli was the key advocate for the partnership and proposed the idea to the expo's leadership team, particularly Christine Ianuzzi, and they said, hey, we love NORML, and if they're in, we're in. JMP and Erik Altieri at NORML gave us the okay and we went and did it and it was a lot of fun and raised a little money for NORML. We did two more back then, in LA and Boston. Now, it's becoming a fixture on the Cannabis Week calendar the surrounds our city's biggest cannabis show, CWCBExpo, eight years running at The Javits. We hope it will grow and become the Met Gala of Marijuana.

The idea in part of the NORML FORML is to hook up the non-profit organization with some for-profit sponsors, and as participants in CWCBExpo, Curved Papers invites all their fellow exhibitors each year and they are very supportive of bringing sponsorships into the community here.

You engaged speakers from so many different sectors at the NORML FORML. Do you think regions around the country can do the same for their cannabis communities?

The NORML FORML serves a more general purpose of cutting across lines and bringing together a truly diverse cross-section of the Canna Fam and the community of the city at large. The .orgs, the .edus, the .govs, the .nets and the .coms ... they're all there...

I hope we do a good job here and other cities will join in the progress. As the green wave of legalization, that came from West to East, which we always jokingly call Cannafest Destiny, newer legalizations in the East have been, like in any arc of innovation or progress, better, and included the maturing concerns of equity and justice. Illinois and Massachusetts came before us and really pushed the envelope. But in reality, their implementations have not fully met the promise of the laws. In New York, we have a chance to really be inclusive and do it in a practical way that actually enables equity.

Founder Keith Stroup's NORML FORML Address (C) Curved Papers

Who were some of the most inspiring speakers for you this year?

Well, the tape [National NORML founder] Keith Stroup sent to kick off the evening was truly a historic document. Keith is a New York lover, and was happy to support us with a riveting address, which he can be counted on for. We're looking forward to Keith being in attendance at NORML FORML NYC 2022 in the Spring. He said, "Stay well and stay high!"

What are the most urgent goals for Empire State and NYC NORML now that New York has legalized? Expungement, homegrow and social equity are all huge topics within the community.

After the law come the [regulations]; NORML will make formal comments when they are published. Legalization is the beginning of a marathon of regulation and legislative work. Everybody is waiting for the regs on licensing. Cannabis Control Board and Office of Cannabis Management appointed by the Governor are doing the work. Communication is open.

Homegrow is in the law. We got it! Curved Papers' “Do The Right Thing, New York” campaign included homegrow in its Seven Points About Legalization In New York at the beginning of the year, when it was absolutely off the table.

Expungement is the law. The work is ongoing and will be likely be done within a year, everybody. Good news. 400,000 people's records cleared.

Michael O-Malley, Colleen Hughes and Ryan Lepore at NORML FORML 2021 (C) Curved Papers

What about the possibility of opt-outs? A lot of towns in New Jersey decided not to pass local legalization even though state regulators said yes.

In New York, NORML is focused on opt-outs. The few compromises made passing the MRTA got the opt-outs down from the county level to the town and village level, so hopefully, in each county, there will be access. It impacts social equity when some towns opt-out. The end of the year the window to opt-out closes. Final challenges, which must be done within 45 days, called "permissive referenda" will all be done early in the new year.

Also currently is a period for comments for medical homegrow. Caregiver provisions could be upgraded, an extra patient you want to grow for, one plant. [Director of Empire State NORML] Nancy Udell says [the compromise could be] three. Can't really comment right now until regulations come out.

For you, what is the most important part of being involved in NORML? How do you see NORML continuing to shape the future of cannabis?

NORML is a consumer advocacy [organization]. The first issue for cannabis consumers was legalization and it took fifty years. But now the job marches on. NORML is front and center in the marathon of legislation and regulation that follows legalization in each state. And they will always be champions for consumers on issues of access, fairness, pricing, safety and quality.

Melissa Gibson and Honeysuckle Founder Ronit Pinto at NORML FORML 2021 (C) Curved Papers

What are your next upcoming projects?

We're running a hip-hop contest called Bodega Bars. You can find out about it and sign up on curvedrollingpapers.com/bodegabars. We have signs up in stores that sell Curved Papers in Brooklyn, Manhattan, and all around the city and area, including some in New Jersey now. You can find our stores at curvedrollingpapers.com/stores/. We have over 150 entrants already! On Sundays at 4:20, entrants will join us on our podcast, Easy To Roll, now in its second year.

Curved Papers are also available in Smoker's Choice stores at every college and university in New York State. We are in a New York State of mind.