Brandi Hester’s family sold cannabis her whole life. Hester wasn’t aware of it; she was more focused on going to college to get out of poverty.
“To come back and know that the seed that we had in our community could be the same seed that saves our children, whatever is necessary to do, we have to do. Because a burning building is happening in Black and Brown communities,” says Hester, strategic partner with BLOOM ROC. “Cannabis, the thing that broke our families, can be the thing to heal our families now.”
The cannabis advocacy group BLOOM ROC primarily supports emerging cannabis businesses through an eight-week incubator program, cannabis education for groups, and street-level canvassing to get entrepreneurs involved in the industry.
The six-company coalition is made up of legacy sellers and advocates in the cannabis industry including Entertaining and Elevating, Roc Norml, Sun Lion Financial Group, A Room Consultants, Rochester Digital Solutions, and the New York Green Coalition.
The fledgling nonprofit organization, which marked 120 days last week, already has seen success in efforts to educate, connect, and provide programming in the burgeoning legal, adult-use cannabis market. So far, BLOOM ROC has hit the streets with more than 50 hours of canvassing, given 12 weeks of hybrid support during the licensing application window and engaged with 120 potential applicants. A total of 25 applicants have applied for a license.
State Sen. Jeremy Cooney, who chairs the subcommittee on cannabis, believes BLOOM ROC’s approach should be a model for the rest of the state.
“Most organizations doing the work to support legacy sellers and people of color to apply, they are institutional,” Cooney says. “And they’re doing good work, but BLOOM (is) really a group of dedicated neighbors talking to other neighbors. They’re these authentic messengers.”
Jeffrey Medford, BLOOM ROC director of community engagement, notes that BLOOM ROC members reside where they work–which extends trust.
“Trust is important because it’s still somewhat of a challenge. Some people we talk to really are afraid that, ‘If I talk to you, my door is going to be knocked down in the middle of the night,’ and they decide not to get involved or fill out an application,” he says.
Although it was originally made aware of the need for outreach efforts by the Office of Cannabis Management, BLOOM ROC has done this work as volunteers without any government funding.
Recently, the group organized a fundraiser and award gala. It also was a networking opportunity for emerging cannabis businesses, politicians, realtors, insurance brokers and others.
“We want to act and are acting as a convener. Our goal is to not work in silos, it’s to collaborate with other community-based organizations, because we can’t give this industry a fighting chance alone,” says Precious Brown, BLOOM ROC’s co-executive director and director of industry partnerships.
Although New York legalized recreational adult-use cannabis through the Marihuana Regulation & Taxation Act in 2021, the path to licensed retail spaces has been a rocky one.
“In terms of retail access, it’s been a series of starts and stops. There is still a logjam when it comes to both physical product and retail access,” says Cooney. “I have been pushing (OCM) to speed up their process for permanent licenses.”
OCM itself has had a harried experience as an organization. Since its inception, it has faced lawsuits from various groups, with some lawmakers accusing large corporations of intentionally working to delay the rollout. Another issue is the requirement for license applicants to be “site ready.” This means the licensing delay has forced some business owners to pay rent on retail space for months while waiting for authorization.
Last year, Cannabis Advisory Board officials admitted they should be doing more, but staffing gaps have severely limited their efficiency. For example, an investigation this January by CNY Central found that only 14 cannabis investigators were currently employed to look into illegal shops.
The issue of non-licensed shops selling cannabis products is widespread across the state. In Monroe County, there are currently only two sites listed as adult-use cannabis dispensaries by OCM: MJ Dispensary and RISE, both located in Henrietta.
While certain local municipalities such as Henrietta, Brighton, and Rochester, have been embracing cannabis retail space, others, such as Greece, have voted to opt-out of dispensaries and consumption sites.
Brown shares a story about her mother, a 69-year-old retired nurse, who, excited at the prospect of using cannabis for pain relief, showed her daughter purchases from one such shop. Her mother had not visited a licensed dispensary–the products she purchased did not have a certificate of analysis.
“She felt hoodwinked and bamboozled. I felt disappointed that I had to give her this bad news after she was so excited,” Brown says.
Learning from that experience however, BLOOM ROC says it was able to organize educational sessions specifically for an older population, guiding them to trustworthy sources of information.
Cooney says illegal shops are important to root out as the consumable cannabis that many stores sell under the table are actually products rejected from testing sites in California. The only way to know for certain that a product is checked by New York standards is to buy from a licensed shop.
However, the senator also believes punitive investigations do not have to be the only approach to this issue. Most people are unintentionally purchasing non-licensed products due to confusion around the industry. Therefore, he believes driving up the supply of licensed locations will crowd out those illegal sites, fueling his desire for OCM to clear the backlog of applicants.
The MRTA directly made equity part of its structure, requiring that 50 percent of licenses must go toward Social and Economic Equity applicants. That group, which BLOOM ROC pays special attention to, includes individuals disproportionately impacted by cannabis prohibition, minority and women-owned businesses, distressed farmers and service-disabled veterans.
“In New York, Black residents are 15 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana than their white counterparts,” notes Cooney.
OCM determined that census tracts in the Crescent neighborhoods in the Rochester area were among those most impacted by the war on drugs in 15-year chunks. Applicants qualify under this category if they lived at an address within those tracts for five to seven years, depending on specifications.
In addition, the MRTA intends to use sales of adult-use cannabis for reinvestment into communities such as Rochester. Of the tax revenue collected by the state, 40 percent will go to education spending, 40 percent will go to Community Grants Reinvestment Fund, and 20 percent will go to Drug Treatment and Public Education Fund.
“($33 billion) is the amount of earned income wages lost because of the war on drugs,” says Hester, who is also a former teacher in the city school system. “When I overlap that with the education system in Rochester and I see that Black kids are 4.5 grades below grade level, I can’t unknow that.”
Revenues for this industry could be substantial, Cooney believes. The cannabis industry was projected to reach over $30 billion sales in 2023 nationwide and he says estimates for New York’s total market alone could potentially be anywhere from $5 billion to $7 billion.
“It’s a big, fast-growing market. And it has been for a while, just underground,” he adds. “It’s a widespread interest. It’s not just the city or the suburbs, it’s not just the young or the elderly, it’s all of those types who have called my office with interest.”
While some are less bullish on New York’s potential share, others suggest that focusing solely on revenue growth is counterproductive.
“I tell this to town supervisors and town board members all the time, we have to remember, the product is already in your community. The question is, do you want to sell it legally, safely, and tax it or not?” says Cooney. “I think many people in Rochester will be surprised at its impact.”
The leaders of BLOOM ROC defend the progress the OCM has made and praise the MRTA for its inclusion of equity beyond what any other state has provided. For example, they see the efforts in Rochester as a way to avoid the crowding out of small businesses and impacted individuals by larger, multistate companies that occurred in Chicago.
BLOOM ROC’s areas of growth in the next year include fighting against misinformation, from legacy growers and sellers to the faith-based community. It also hopes to continue to grow the number of SEE applicants and, in the future, provide job training for businesses the group helped start.
“We want to make a cycle of SEE applicants supporting other SEE applicants. It’s about creating a legacy of generational wealth,” says Hester.
“I keep thinking about those billions of dollars. I would have been in private school. I would not have had to watch my uncles be arrested. I wouldn’t have thought my dad was a bad person because we would have actually seen him as a viable member of society. I wouldn’t have lost many members of my community through guns, because they would have been focused on creating legacy, not violence,” she says. “That’s what we’re working toward.”
Jacob Schermerhorn is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer and data journalist. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected].