Anyone who wandered into last week’s CannaBusiness event expecting to find a small, quirky gathering of pot enthusiasts would have been in for quite a surprise. About 350 earnest professionals attended the half-day event to learn about “Capitalizing on the Cannabis Economy.” They heard from an array of experts, including policymakers, businesspeople, law enforcement officials and physicians.
The event—organized by the Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce and Flower City Solutions—was enthusiastically received by attendees. The speakers included Chamber CEO Bob Duffy, state Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes, Canadian Deputy Consul General Khawar Nasim, and Michael Mendoza, Monroe County public health commissioner.
I spoke with the event’s co-organizer, Zach Sarkis, who heads both Flower City Solutions and NYHempLab, a nonprofit hemp industry incubator, to discuss the event and the emerging opportunity represented by hemp in our region:
ROCHESTER BEACON: The CannaBusiness event was notable both for the large number of attendees and the impressive credentials of the event speakers. It seems this reflects the large opportunity that this new industry represents. Could you speak about just how large of an opportunity this may be for our region?
ZACH SARKIS: The cannabis industry is booming across the country for industrial hemp, medical cannabis, and recreational uses. The states where all forms of cannabis are legal are enjoying a new tax revenue stream. So that’s one benchmark for our region. Another is jobs. National trends point to the cannabis industry as the fastest-growing job market in the nation. Our region is a hub for agriculture, technology, academia and medicine. This industry will further highlight our assets, if we so choose.
Something else to consider is the underground market for cannabis. That illegal trade in New York is estimated to be about $2 billion to $3 billion annually. But more importantly, it is based largely on imported cannabis, which is not supported by a formal supply chain. With a legal system, you have to build in the production, compliance, quality control, traceability and retail components.
As a result, the financial opportunity grows exponentially.
ROCHESTER BEACON: One of the things that all the speakers seemed to agree on was that legalized recreational marijuana was “an issue of not if, but when” for New York. When do you believe legalization will take place, and what might the regulatory framework for recreational cannabis look like?
SARKIS: Count us in with the other speakers. We are optimistic that legislation will pass either this summer or in special session before the year is over. Whenever cannabis is legalized, it will take another year or so before we actually see any recreational cannabis being sold. That said, once a legislation bill passes, we can expect businesses to begin positioning themselves to enter the market. We can also expect to see immediate shifts in regulatory structures governing medical marijuana, such as more liberal policy towards accessibility. It seems clear that the governor’s office wants a bill that is comprehensive and inclusive, so that the economic benefits of legalization are shared by all.
However, the difference between what is a good framework and what is a great one will take time to unfold. New York wants to be a leader, and that will take time and effort. That’s why it is important to move quickly. The longer we wait to legalize, the more tax revenue we will forgo. The longer we wait, the more likely entrepreneurs will pack up and move to states where all forms of cannabis are legal. Who can blame them?
ROCHESTER BEACON: Several speakers noted the specific opportunities that the cannabis industry will create for area farmers, as well as for a range of professions that will be needed to support the growth of the industry. Could you elaborate on what those opportunities might look like, and how local farmers and professionals can prepare to participate in this industry?
SARKIS: First, let me make clear that there is opportunity for farmers today. Hemp is legal to grow and farmers can put this type of cannabis into production now. Based on the demand for CBD, we can expect a huge upswing in acres of hemp being cultivated in New York, just as we’ve seen in other states. I expect we will see growth in hemp seed production too, specifically varieties of hemp with seeds that are high in protein and omega 3 & 6 fatty acids. These components are in high demand already and poised to have even more applications as demand for sustainable alternatives to meat continue to grow.
Looking beyond the plant itself, greenhouse production will be big in our region given our climate. Therefore, various components for indoor growing will be in demand. Likewise, there will be new opportunity for innovation. Things like energy-efficient lighting and next-generation hydroponics can access a big market and play a role in reducing cultivation costs—both financially and ecologically.
That said, anyone interested in getting involved in the industry needs to start doing their research, and community leaders—like the Chamber and NYHempLab—need to continue to bring experts to our region to help educate and facilitate a smooth industry launch.
ROCHESTER BEACON: Another recurring theme at the event was the need to incorporate tenets of social justice into the cannabis industry. Could you explain why this is critical and how it could be accomplished?
SARKIS: The success of the cannabis industry has its roots in the underground market. That is a fact. It is also a fact that people of color, specifically in low-income urban areas, have been the target of a “war on drugs,” which by any measure has been a decades-long failure with dire consequences.
And that’s putting it mildly.
Just consider the irony at hand. Hundreds of people showed up at the CannaBusiness event—myself included—to hear about the “emerging industry.” In other words, they want to learn how to participate and make money. Meanwhile, thousands upon thousands of people have been arrested and gone to prison—and may still be there—because they sold some weed when it was illegal. And that’s not counting the millions of people who were arrested simply for possession.
So, yeah, there is a lot of discussion about what can be done. There is talk about expunging records of nonviolent charges related to cannabis. There is talk about offering minority groups preferential treatment with regards to the licensing process. There are many ideas out there that need to be heard and considered.
I think the most promising way to ensure social justice is to leverage the cannabis industry as the creative force that it is. It will create tax revenue. So the question is: How does it get spent? It will create jobs. So the question is: Who will get hired? It will create innovations. So the question is: Where else can we make the most of those innovations?
Bottom line: We can’t stop asking ourselves those questions and looking for opportunities through a social justice lens.
ROCHESTER BEACON: At the event you announced that NYHempLab has now completed its registration as a 501c3 nonprofit. Could you describe what NYHempLab does and how it plans to serve as a catalyst for the regional hemp economy?
SARKIS: To clarify, hemp is cannabis. Hemp is simply a name for varieties cultivated for the specific trait of being low in the psychotropic cannabinoid THC. It’s like seedless oranges. The practices and products derived from the hemp industry will translate directly to the cannabis industry. Therefore, we can help get the ball rolling in our region by working with hemp, which is federally legal today.
NYHempLab aspires to be a regional catalyst by offering a range of educational and business incubation services to the community. We will host events, seminars, and networking events.
We will offer web-based and hands-on learning opportunities. We will provide mentoring programs too, where people can spend time with experts on a range of topics, from production to taxes to social justice initiatives.
There are so many complexities in entering a highly regulated market—if there is not a support system for the industry, it will not prevail and national market leaders will not hesitate to replace local initiatives if they feel they can.