After years of failed attempts, New York State legalized the use of recreational marijuana last month.
The law legalizes the possession and recreational use of cannabis for adults ages 21 and older, allowing for up to three ounces of cannabis possession for recreational use or 24 grams of concentrated cannabis, such as oils derived from a cannabis plant. It could create an extremely lucrative market for the cannabis business, projected to be a $4.2 billion industry in the state by 2027.
And for PR pros, it means bringing on more cannabis clients. But in order to grow, social equity and brand purpose should be at the forefront of their messaging, said Patrik Jonsson, regional president for the Northeast at medical and wellness cannabis operator Curaleaf.
“All brands [have a social responsibility], but cannabis brands in particular [have a responsibility] based on the history of cannabis and how people of color have been so negatively impacted by the war on drugs,” Jonsson said.
A provision of the New York law states that 40% of tax revenue from legal cannabis sales will be reinvested in minority communities affected by mass incarcerations over marijuana. Individuals convicted in the state for marijuana-related offenses that are no longer illegal will have their records expunged. The law also aims to allow people with past convictions for the illegal sale of marijuana to participate in the legal market.
New York is one of the few states to tie marijuana legalization to economic and racial equity, which Jordan Isenstadt, SVP at Marino PR, said communications professionals need to keep in mind.
“The beauty of the bill is it's going to allow for small businesses, minority-owned businesses and women-owned businesses to take their place, and hopefully the market will not be dominated by multistate operators who are frankly, led by white men,” Isenstadt said, adding that Marino PR works primarily with small businesses. “The legislation is a tremendous opportunity for smaller businesses to pick their part of the supply chain and put everything they've got into it.”
There are 10 companies licensed to grow and sell medical cannabis in New York State, including Curaleaf, the largest provider of cannabis consumer products in the U.S., which operates 97 dispensaries in 23 states for both medical and adult-use cannabis.
In February, Curaleaf launched Rooted in Good, an initiative focused on social equity, diversity and inclusion and sustainability. Curaleaf has committed to doing business with 420 new cannabis brands and small businesses, ancillary suppliers and advocacy organizations from underrepresented communities by 2025 and employ at least 10% new hires in 2021 from populations of people directly impacted by cannabis-related offenses.
The cannabis company has also committed to contributing at least $1 million to community investment to programs that address collateral consequences associated with marijuana related offenses.
“Multistate operators need to lead the charge to set up an infrastructure that is scalable,” Jonsson said. “[MSOs] should be at [new operators’] disposal, whether they’re looking for guidance around a security plan or finding a lawyer or getting a loan.”
Initiatives aimed at educating marginalized groups and diversifying ownership and the workforce in the cannabis industry is something that can only improve profit margins, Carrie Booze, director at North 6th Agency said, adding that it is also just the right thing to do.
“From a business standpoint, this is a [position] that resides on the right side of history, primarily for those that are white-owned and led by non-BIPOC groups that want to be inclusive,” Booze said.
Other cannabis companies have also caught on to the need to ramp up social equity efforts.
Cresco Labs chief communications officer Jason Erkes says that helping other people get into the industry and create diversity and opportunities within the cannabis industry is why the company launched SEED, a social equity and education development program.
The program, which launched in 2019, aims to create restorative justice programming, including expungement events and lobbying for justice reform. Other goals are to jumpstart minority-owned cannabis businesses and educate communities impacted by the war on drugs to legally enter the cannabis businesses.
“Companies like ours have a responsibility to work hand-in-hand with communities across the state of New York to make sure that they're successful in applying for any license to give them a piece of ownership in the cannabis industry,” Erkes said.
Since the program’s launch, Cresco Labs, which legally sells medical marijuana in New York, reported that in 2019, it contributed more than $325,000 to college programs and workforce development initiatives to educate underserved communities about the marijuana industry.
“[The cannabis industry] is the fastest growing industry in the country right now,” Erkes said. “Through [programs like SEED], we can employ hundreds of thousands of people and make sure that people are getting a formal education in different aspects of this industry to help create a more educated workforce for the future.”
SEED also invested $397,931 to cover the cost of expungement events in multiple states and other justice-oriented programming and events and financially supported more than 1,000 individuals seeking expungement of their records.
While legal sales won’t begin until April 1, 2022, and the New York cannabis market is predicted to take 18 months to two years to establish pending regulations, Jonsson says brands should consider how they can help now.
“Different operators will need different things. [A brand] with connections and who knows the regulations needs to make sure that everybody has access to [cannabis] in a safe and equitable way,” Jonsson said.