Article by Scott Mazza, Founder of Buffalo’s Vitality CBD
Buffalo’s first recreational retail dispensary for cannabis is now open for business. Dank, on 501 Main Street, is the first legal operator in Western New York, marking the end of cannabis prohibition and the turning of a new leaf in our city.
However, it’s been a long and winding road to get to this point. And there’s still a long way to go. There are plenty of people like me, for example, who are still waiting two years after legalization for a retail license and feel no closer to a definitive answer from the state.
Nonetheless, many like me also see this as a logical business and cultural evolution for Buffalo. Let’s dig into how we got here and what’s next for legal cannabis.
A short history of legal cannabis and retail licenses
Let’s wind back the clock just a little. Following recreational cannabis legalization in 2021, New York’s Office of Cannabis Management (OCM) revealed more detail about licensing last year. The first retail dispensaries to open for legal cannabis sales would be under Conditional Adult-Use Retail Dispensary (CAURD) licenses. These special permits give those convicted of a New York marijuana-related offense the first opportunity to join the incoming legal cannabis market.
But there was a problem. Last November, a Michigan-based applicant argued it was unconstitutionally disadvantaged in obtaining a CAURD license because the regulations favor New York residents. As a result, a judge paused applications in five territories including Western New York.
The ban was finally lifted but caused an almost six-month delay. Now, the first storefront opening brings back some much-needed momentum. Better yet, there are even more licenses to go around.
Initially, Western New York was only allocated 11 licenses, which was later doubled to 22. Toward the end of July, The OCM revealed at its regular meeting that an additional 9 licenses were coming to our region. As an applicant, this is music to my ears. There are 38 in the approvals queue – meaning there are 38 teams who followed the process, submitted their proposals, and invested in legal cannabis. It seems only fair – especially after the delays and legal headaches – that the odds of earning a license increase for everyone. Watch this space over the next three months.
The push and pull between regulated and unregulated
As the legal market comes online, it’s worth discussing what’s happening with unregulated cannabis in Buffalo. The gray market, for example, has grown significantly in recent years. You’ll even see billboards around town for “sticker” shops, places where customers can purchase stickers or other small goods and receive cannabis as a “gift.” But enforcement is starting to change.
In May, Governor Kathy Hochul signed new legislation to increase civil and tax penalties for the unlicensed and illicit sale of cannabis in New York. Penalties included fines of up to $20,000 a day. The legislation also made it a crime to sell cannabis and cannabis products without a license.
Recently, South Buffalo was hit particularly hard. I understand officers came down on numerous sticker and smoke shops with one owner allegedly receiving a felony charge. The unregulated market is understandably spooked with even more closing shop or changing tact around Buffalo. But don’t be fooled. The gray market – even if less visible – continues to do well.
At the same time, dispensaries beyond government purview are flourishing. The slow state rollout of legal cannabis is a boon to Native American territories which operate under their own rules. As a result, people that would have shopped at a city dispensary are now very familiar with driving to the reservation and their favorite operator. This market is a machine in and of itself – complete with established stores with loyal customers. It will be interesting to see how this plays out once the rest of the state’s dispensaries are up and running.
Buffalo: A thriving cannabis market
This is an inflection point in our business and cultural landscape. Regardless of the fact we’re a rustbelt city of smaller size, Buffalo counts a thriving cannabis market. It’s bigger than most people think and only growing. Black, gray, or legal, there’s an appetite for cannabis that’s not going away.
Nonetheless, it’s an evolution that has been a long time coming. For people like my business partner, who counts a federal and state conviction for cannabis, it’s especially overdue. He served time and now there are legal stores in Western New York. Attitudes are changing – and so they should.
A strong entrepreneurial community is spearheading new shops, new products, and new opportunities. Customers, meanwhile, are shaking off any taboo and embracing the city’s scene. This is just the start but there’s plenty on the horizon for cannabis in Buffalo.