Dispensaries are preparing to enter the New York market once the law is approved
One dawn, nine years ago, José Cruz stopped seeing his brother Marcos in the streets of Mott Haven, in the Bronx. Officers at the New York City Police Department (NYPD) explained that “Che,” as his friends fondly called him, had been stabbed while trying to break up a fight outside a restaurant on 149th Street and Grand Concourse. A few hours later, these same officers told Cruz, 40, single and without children, and several media outlets, that his brother “was not a saint” and that he had been arrested at least 12 times for selling cocaine and marijuana.
The case was never solved, but now, in the middle of a cold winter afternoon, Cruz contemplates with sadness, and at the same time passion, the tree he planted in March 2010, after the burial of his brother. He and his community decided to be reborn after the farewell of “Che.” Adults and children joined in a project to rescue Brook Park, located on Brook Avenue between 140 and 141 East streets, just behind the building where their parents settled after arriving from La Perla, Puerto Rico.
Brook Park, also known locally as Alexander Burger Park, in honor of a Lithuanian immigrant who settled in the area, serves today as a setting for community meetings, planting tomatoes and strawberries during the spring, and activities for young people and seniors. It is also the place where Cruz continues to promote its community work through its organization Young, Fresh and Conscious, an initiative that was born with the purpose of not only helping young people affected by drug addiction but also to those who have received the adverse effect of the war on drugs in this community.
Although today the park is a site worthy of showing, in the past it was the opposite. As Cruz grew, the place was the epicenter of illegal drug trades. He used to peek through the window of his apartment and see how neighboring buildings were used entirely as hallucinogenic factories, but he did not understand why.
“I had many questions that people could not answer, so I decided to do my research, go to school, to communities, take sociology, history classes,” Cruz said. “But that did not work for me, so I decided to study everything related to addiction and worked for 15 years as an addiction counselor in a hospital.”
He thought that his life was going well, until that day when his brother passed away. It was like going back in time and reliving those afternoons in the window of his house. This time it was different: his brother was not only one of the victims of this war on drugs, but it was also the result of, he says, the criminalization of communities of color.
“I thought at the time: all this pain that I have, all this anger, but here I am, doing good things for my family, for my community and I lose my brother like that,” Cruz said, while holding a teaching material full of images about the history of the Puerto Rican and African-American community in the Bronx, which he uses in the workshops he teaches in organizations and schools in the south of this county.
War on drugs
Mott Haven, a community where Latinos are on every corner, mostly Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, and Dominicans, is currently undergoing a process of gentrification, after decades of poverty, violence, and crime. In the 1940s, when the Bronx generally divided into the East and West, a group of social workers identified a poverty zone on 134th Street, east of Brown Place, and named it the “South of the Bronx.“
This area of poverty would be extended in part due to an illegal practice known as “blockbusting,” a commercial process that real estate agents and building developers used to convince white homeowners to sell their homes at low prices, through the creation of fear in those homeowners that racial minorities “would soon move into the neighborhood.” Then, the agents sold those same houses at much higher prices to black and Hispanic families desperate to escape from other areas.
These real estate practices, coupled with the decision of Robert Moses, known as the “master builder” of New York City in the mid-twentieth century, to build 17 public housing projects in this area, created the perfect setting for a system of surveillance and apprehension, a direct path to prison. A cycle that Cruz hopes will finally end.
New times, new opportunities
After years of work in the community, Cruz, who lives with his mother in an apartment near the Brook Avenue Subway station, with whom he speaks Spanish and dances salsa in honor of his father, a musician dedicated to the art of playing Congas, a Puerto Rican percussion instrument, is hopeful that with the possibility that marijuana will be legalized this year in New York, communities like his will “finally see a way to repair the damage left by racism in the war on drugs“, taking into account that more than 800,000 people have been arrested and imprisoned for marijuana-related crimes in the last 20 years, mostly Latinos and African-Americans.
Mayor Bill de Blasio acknowledged in mid-December that the legalization of commercial cannabis at the state level could inject large sums of money into communities that historically have been at the center of the war on drugs.
“I am convinced that we can establish a regulatory framework that keeps our streets safe, resolves the mistakes of the past and offers economic opportunities to the communities most affected by the war on drugs,” De Blasio said.
For Cruz, who has closely followed the process in states where recreational marijuana use is already legal, such as California and Oregon, the opportunity presents a way of business for him and his community.
“With this process of legalization there will be many people who smoke it for recreational reasons, but it is important that we offer more education, and most importantly: we want to be part of the business of sowing and harvesting,” said the community leader, who, for several weeks has been researching alternatives on how to become an essential part of this industry that could generate up to $ 670 million in taxes annually for New York.
The first weeks of 2019 seem to be the prelude to what will be a controversial and lengthy analysis in Albany, however, for many New Yorkers like Cruz, the legalization of cannabis is inevitable, and that’s why more and more companies dedicated to the commercialization of the green products decide to establish in the Big Apple, awaiting the day of the law approval.
One of them is The People’s Dispensary, a cannabis company created in 2016 in California, after, they say, the market was not serving the needs of people of color, women, members of the LGBT community, veterans, former incarcerators and people with chronic diseases.
“96% of Cannabis business owners in California are white men,” said Christine De La Rosa, founder of The People’s Dispensary, who changed the template California climate for the cold in New York two months ago when she decided to settle in Brooklyn. “I came to New York as an advocate for all marginalized employees and to make sure that New York is part of the conversation and can create a path to the formal economy without criminalizing.”
For De La Rosa, the opportunity is “unique,” in part, because it is possible to learn from the difficulties that have arisen in other states where communities of color have not been able to benefit from its legalization. On the one hand, they have not become accredited investors; and on the other, they do not have access to capital to invest, nor training in business development to build their own companies.
“We have a truly unique moment in which we can legislate and also ensure that our communities of color are part of this multibillion-dollar industry,” said the CEO, who stressed that, in addition to the financial involvement, which at the industry level could reach the $ 500 billion, cannabis also “saves lives”.
According to De La Rosa, The People’s Dispensary has a customer base of almost 4,000 members, with a monthly retention rate of 84%. Once it is legal to do so in New York, small and non-accredited investors can legally invest between $ 1,000 and $ 50,000 in their local dispensary.
With the opening of one of these dispensaries, which resembles a store, where clients can buy cannabis products, including medical aids or relaxing, there would also be an increase in jobs in the area, which includes, according to De La Rosa, not only works in the same location, where 80% of employees are expected to be Hispanic or African-American, but also in real estate and private security.
“Right now we are about to open a center in Los Angeles [California] where 80 people will be hired to work in this store that offers services from 6:00 am to 10:00 pm,” she added.
Apart from the business opportunity for citizens, it is a benefit for the City, at least as explained by a report from City Hall that said that almost $ 1,7 billion in marijuana could be sold legally in just one year, and the City could charge a fee on sales taxes.
That is why, even though there is not an official plan, De Blasio recommended state legislators to take into account the creation of loans specifically for Hispanic and African-American investors.
Community says NO
The division in the Hispanic community continues to increase. Although the Mayor and the Governor continue to explain how legalization will bring benefits for Hispanics and African Americans, in areas like Washington Heights, where most of its residents are Dominicans, rejection is alive.
“I do not see anything positive about that. If politicians legalize marijuana, where are we going to end,” said Maria Hubiera. “Just look at the problem that is happening at the 181st Street station. It’s a huge problem. They are finding the syringes that have been left by those who are going to drug themselves down there. So, what do they want New York to become?”
“It is harmful to health,” said José Valdes. “A boy can be good, be at home quietly, but as soon as they start with that idea of marijuana, they start to steal, to ask for money.”
Finally, the younger voices seem to be more open to the possibility. Yimbert Remigio, a community leader who is part of several organizations that offer services for the Hispanic community in the area, recognized that religion plays a fundamental role in the opinions for Hispanics.
“As this community is very Catholic and very conservative, many will say no, but it may be that the younger ones can say yes, especially for the medical issue because some use it for bad things, but others can use it for good things,” concluded the young Hispanic.