By Jack Porcari
The birth of Sergio Peña's son pushed him to “start making moves” at 17 years old. He established a cannabis delivery service in the Sunset Park neighborhood around the summer of 1993 and the legacy market entrepreneurship would mark a transformational moment for his family. Soon, a lifelong mission began to take shape.
The Story Of Savage Leaves: Living With A Disability In Cannabis
“Where my story really takes off is in October of ‘94 when I got shot on Halloween and I lost my sight—that’s when I took this cannabis industry very seriously,” he said. “I got shot when I was 19, so we’ve been doing this journey for 28 years.”
Peña, who went by “Seg,” soon envisioned a new path with the help of individuals he “would consider his brothers.” As the specter of life with a disability began to take root, friends frequently picked him up to check in, sometimes with greens. Feeling “lost” and unsure of the future, cannabis would stop headaches, spark laughter and revitalize conviction. “Then I started buying enough so when people started visiting me, I had enough for them and it just took off from there,” he said.
The industrious graffiti artist forged a close-knit tribe alongside his cousin Llewellyn “Lew” Cruz, who was working two jobs in the mail rooms of MTV and Catholic Near East at the time. “When he got shot, that brought us together,” Lew said. “It [teaming up] was just a no-brainer—he had like half the neighborhood already locked down, so I got down with him and ever since then, we’ve been together.”
Growing Savage Leaves: Bicoastal Influences And New York Success
Their family business, now known as Savage Leaves, was built through shared history. “We go back to when we were little kids; our parents had stores on the same block,” Lew said. “My friend Charlie’s father had a liquor store, my cousin Sergio’s father had a grocery store and my parents had a dry cleaners.”
Over the years, they specialized in retail, wholesale and delivery. Lew eventually sourced strains from one of New York’s most sophisticated cannabis distributors, Cartoon Network, while Seg helped manage “bicoastal” relationships. “I had an opportunity to start selling the cubes [of high-grade cannabis] and when I did that, it was a whole different thing,” Lew said. “Nobody in this area was doing that and I got to meet a lot more people in the city.” Trips to the city meant more curated genetics and in 2009, Lew formalized his knowledge of the plant at Oaksterdam University. While in California studying cultivation, his peers became instrumental in forming strategic partnerships in Brooklyn post graduation.
Through their teamwork, the cousins successfully tapped into the local community, healed themselves and served as a role model for others. Seg had a chauffeur, his graffiti was “everywhere” and he even opened real estate offices and a sneaker store along the way. “We were in the club scenes and we loved the lifestyle,” he said. “I know that I inspired a lot of people around me.”
Despite the many challenges they encountered, the pair’s illustrious cannabis career amounted to an internalized sense of resilience. Seg eventually felt the ripple effect of his work. “What shifted me positively was other people coming up to me, even though I was working out, telling me, ‘Yo you inspired me, you’re inspirational; I was about to give up,’” he said. “When I see you—you can’t see, but you’re here, you’re there, you’re everywhere; put a smile on your face!”
The Savage Leaves Vision: New York Legacy To Legal
After thirty years of smiling, Seg and Lew are at a new juncture in their career: establishing a licensed Manhattan dispensary. Nonprofits like the New York CAURD Coalition (now the New York Cannabis Retail Association [NYCRA]) and The Bronx Cannabis Hub helped in the application process and, in July 2023, the New York Office of Cannabis Management (OCM) awarded Savage Leaves a Cannabis Adult-Use Retail Dispensary (CAURD) license. Poised to assume the responsibility of “the most equitable cannabis roll-out in the nation and the State,” implementation of the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA) is impacting opportunities for legacy entrepreneurs.
On May 3rd, Governor Kathy Hochul signed legislation giving the Attorney General’s Office and other agencies the authority to padlock illicit stores and target owners—not employees of illicit operations. New York is also fast-tracking cannabis businesses through their Seeding Opportunity Initiative, CAURD program, compliance training and stakeholder roundtables. While these necessary steps provide clarity and work toward a more inclusive economy, some worry the current enforcement is insufficient and won’t protect industry veterans.
“This is a different moment, this is a different day and this is a different approach—our focus started with notice,” said OCM Executive Director Chris Alexander when discussing enforcement policy.
Although New York took a new path toward equity, enforcement and cannabis legalization, the Savage Leaves team still felt the growing pains of building out a legal operation. Their opening hinges on a crucial litigation, they need a location and on October 4th, OCM opened a general licensure portal for the public as well as Registered Organizations (ROs). Some say the early licensure expansion could hurt social equity applicants like Savage Leaves and saturate the market.
Staying Purpose-Driven In A Competitive Market: What's Next For Savage Leaves In New York Cannabis?
“It's [affected] our comrades like ConBud and like TerpBros, you know, [they've been] going through it more than we are because they already have locations,” Lew explained. “We're in the process of starting, so we're trying to figure out what's the best route to go because we don't want to put ourselves in the hole—just trying to learn from other people's experiences as well.”
Savage Leaves’ dispensary is visualized as a welcoming, purpose-driven environment. The goal is to provide compassion, companionship and professionalism, just like the plant did for Seg: “Since I’m disabled, I’m trying to open avenues for all individuals that are disabled, even elderly as well,” he said. “We want to help people that are retired and want something to do; want to work and feel a part of this community.”
New dimensions continually shape their focus on accessibility in the community. Lew, who has degenerative disc disease, recently was diagnosed with epilepsy, an experience that he described as “another door open right now.'' Soon, away from Sunset Park, the team will open other doors to grow their vision. “We’re never going to forget where we came from and give back,” Lew said. “That's a given.”
For more about Savage Leaves, follow @savageleaves on Instagram.
Jack Porcari is a multidisciplinary content creator and advocate from the vibrant city of Buffalo, New York. His work is highly focused on equity, human experience and cannabis justice. To read more of Jack’s words, visit loudthoughts.online. Follow @thecannaprofessor and @loudthoughtszine on Instagram.