Lower Manhattan’s third licensed adult-use cannabis dispensary opens on Monday, February 13th, as Union Square Travel Agency: A Cannabis Store welcomes its first customers beginning at noon. Located at 62 East 13thStreet between Broadway and University Place on the site of a former bank, the retailer is part of New York’s history-making Conditional Adult Use Retail Dispensary (CAURD) program, which is the first in the country to prioritize licenses for justice-involved entrepreneurs and nonprofit organizations. The shop sits just a short distance away from the borough’s two other legal dispensaries, Housing Works Cannabis Co and Smacked Village. And for the team comprising Union Square Travel Agency (USTA), like their other cannabis community compatriots, their biggest focus is on bringing needed change to the populations they serve.
Watch Honeysuckle's interview with USTA Dispensary Supervisor Danielle Goodwin:
Union Square Travel Agency: A Cannabis Store and The Doe Fund
Union Square Travel Agency is operated by a subsidiary of The Doe Fund, a long-running nonprofit aimed at ending recidivism and homelessness in New York and abroad. Founded in 1985, The Doe Fund is known for its job training programs, particularly the “Ready, Willing and Able” initiative that provides a 12-month residency complete with social services to people with histories of incarceration, homelessness, and unemployment. New Yorkers recognize the program’s participants by the blue uniforms they wear as they beautify city streets and sidewalks. Though “Ready, Willing and Able” members will not be working at USTA themselves, the dispensary will be giving a substantial percentage of its proceeds to benefit The Doe Fund’s operations and the people who rely on the nonprofit’s support. Additionally, the store will represent local women and BIPOC-owned cannabis brands on its shelves.
Union Square Travel Agency President Arana Hankin-Biggers
For Arana Hankin-Biggers, President of USTA, the opportunity to make inroads in New York cannabis is once in a lifetime. The innovator has worked for over 15 years as a certified Minority and Women-Owned Business Enterprise (MWBE) operator, building ventures across diverse arenas in real estate development and economic policy. She brings to her new role in the cannabis space a wealth of knowledge in navigating complex social and business structures, and excitement at being able to inspire other entrepreneurs of color.
In a statement to the Governor’s Press Office, Hankin-Biggers said, “We are excited to be implementing this innovative structure that was created by New York State, which allows not for profits to work with the private sector on ensuring the funds raised from this new industry will be redirected to populations that were most harmed by the prohibition of cannabis. We hope this structure will serve as a model that the rest of the country will want to emulate.”
Union Square Travel Agency Chief Executive Officer Paul F. Yau
Paul F. Yau, USTA’s Chief Executive Officer, comes from an extensive background of brand-building and early growth strategy in the corporate world. He’s thrilled to pair those skillsets with his lifelong passions for cannabis and public advocacy, commenting, “We are incredibly grateful to everyone who has contributed to the opening of the Union Square Travel Agency: A Cannabis Store. From our amazing partners at The Doe Fund who had the courage and innovation to embrace this opportunity; to the [Office of Cannabis Management], New York State and New York City in paving the way for this new industry and their ongoing commitment in ensuring this legal industry will be a success; our amazing team members who have worked day and night to get us to this point; and our friends and family who have supported us in this endeavor from the beginning. We thank you all.”
Watch Honeysuckle's interview with USTA Dispensary Associate Morgin DuPont:
Behind the Scenes with Union Square Travel Agency: Cannabis Dispensary Associate Training
Honeysuckle was invited to witness an exclusive dispensary associate training session for the USTA staff that took place in advance of the store’s grand opening. Over several fascinating hours, top-notch plant educators and retail experts initiated the company’s newest staff members into the wonderful world of cannabis. Many in attendance already considered themselves advocates, but regardless of knowledge level, everyone came away from the day imbued with a new sense of purpose in their responsibilities.
“It makes me feel really good to know that I’m part of something that’s helping people that are previously incarcerated, people that are facing challenges getting housing or jobs,” asserted Danielle Goodwin, Dispensary Supervisor. As a native of Brooklyn’s Coney Island neighborhood, Goodwin explained that cannabis has been a staple of her community culture, and not always a positive experience for the marginalized groups living there. “I see the difference from soccer moms who would use cannabis, versus people that are brown and Black like me that use cannabis and get looked down upon… We’re fighting that stereotype of people not being able to do anything. We’re actually, actively, helping communities, especially communities that have been stereotyped and marginalized because of their use of cannabis, so I think that’s really important.”
Dispensary Associate Morgin DuPont, a humanitarian activist who’s resided in every borough of New York City, echoed Goodwin’s sentiments. “I love to be part of something that has intention,” she said, noting that as a trans person, the diversity she sees in both the cannabis community generally and the USTA staff in particular is very uplifting. “I come from not having anything. I come from foster care and all that stuff… [It] plays on my heartstrings to know that it’s bigger than just getting high to have cannabis incorporated into your life. It can be greatly beneficial for us. But it’s just the cherry on top knowing that we’re helping others be the best version of themselves.”
DuPont also appreciated the fact that cannabis sold through CAURD licensed dispensaries has to pass laboratory testing. “Living in the hood, we get the janky stuff, the black market stuff,” she observed. “But it's good to know that a lot of products we are selling are going to come from New York, and they’re tested – thoroughly tested and filtered. It’s a form of holistic medicine.”
Watch Honeysuckle's interview with USTA Vice President of Retail Mike Conway:
From Corporate to Cannabis: New York, Nonprofits, and the Promise of the CAURD Program
For Mike Conway, USTA’s Vice President of Retail, the store provides a welcome contrast to the environment that he discovered while working at multistate operators (MSOs) and in “corporate cannabis” over the past several years. “Transparently, I don’t think the MSOs do enough for the communities that they serve, especially the marginalized communities that have been disproportionately affected by cannabis laws,” he stated. “I hope that New York cannabis and [USTA] specifically are able to change that narrative… We’re raising money for an amazing cause… The Doe Fund is a really remarkable organization [whose] platform is that work works. [I hope] it’s the rest of the industry coming in to take care of our communities and recognize the privilege that we have to be working in this space and give back to the people that may not have been so fortunate as us.”
It says a great deal about the future of the cannabis industry that nonprofits such as The Doe Fund can see the plant as an avenue to advancing their missions. Cannabis advocates have always understood that the legalization movement has intersectional and far-reaching holistic effects, impacting healthcare, economics, environmental conservation, and all aspects of the cultural zeitgeist alongside the criminal justice system. As The Doe Fund, Housing Works and other organizations integrate cannabis into their work to address issues such as homelessness, recidivism, and living with HIV/AIDS, they are legitimizing the plant and the movement so that all citizens can benefit from legalization.
Even Governor Kathy Hochul acknowledged this progress in her official statement announcing USTA’s launch: “We’re building a cannabis industry here in New York State that is equitable and delivers new resources to nonprofits that bring supportive services to our communities. This is the latest milestone in our efforts to grow the industry, while creating jobs and opportunity for those who, historically, have been disproportionately targeted for cannabis infractions.”
With Great Power...
Of course there will always be fun in this sector too, as Conway emphasized in the dispensary associate training, identifying enjoyment of the job as his “most key” takeaway for all attendees. But he reflected that no matter what else operating a dispensary may involve, the responsibility that comes with the power of the plant will loom largest.
“There’s a level of expectation that we are going to be somebody’s first foray into cannabis,” he declared. “That’s a really important job to have… If you give somebody a bad time, you could turn them off to cannabis for the rest of their lives. And now people are trusting our dispensary associates when they come in, that they’re going to have the knowledge and are going to be able to connect them with the right product.”
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