The Inspiring Story Behind New York's First Legal Dispensary
By Taylor Engle
New York fully legalized cannabis in March 2021, and over a year later, the state’s first dispensary finally opened for business on December 29, 2022 – at, of course, 4:20 p.m.
This grand opening set two stages for New York City, addressing both how it would tailor its iconic, globally-recognized retail culture for the cannabis industry, and how the cannabis industry will be approached by new and legacy operators throughout the state for years to come.
The First Legal Adult-Use Dispensary in New York
Since the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA) was signed into law, the market has anxiously awaited the rollout of the state’s regulations. New York’s Office of Cannabis Management talked a lot about honoring social equity, but the legislation unsurprisingly left a lot of holes in regards to taking action on the legacy market’s behalf.
As a result, operators are taking the matter into their own hands, and the state’s debut example of that is Housing Works Cannabis Co.: New York’s first legal adult-use cannabis dispensary to be officially open for business and committed to giving back.
Founded in 1990 to address the HIV/AIDS and homelessness crises, Housing Works is a nonprofit organization that remains focused on reinvesting their efforts into negatively-affected communities as they made the recent decision to move into the cannabis industry.
“For decades, the Housing Works nonprofit has supported New York residents living with HIV/AIDS with necessary services that are self-funded in part by retail operations, and we saw an opportunity to expand our reach to different communities,” said Housing Works retail manager Sasha Nugent.
“We know that cannabis can be beneficial for people of all walks of life, and we also know how much revenue the cannabis industry generates. Because of that, we decided to venture into cannabis, and the proceeds we make at HWCC filter right back into our life-saving services for marginalized communities in need.”
Supporting Victims of the War on Drugs
Housing Works was one of the first 36 cannabis businesses to acquire a retail license in November 2022 – and one of the eight non-profit organizations to be able to sell legal cannabis in New York.
These nonprofit licenses were carefully awarded to companies with at least one “justice involved individual” – a.k.a., anyone who was convicted of a cannabis-related offense in New York State before March 31, 2021 (or who is related to someone with a similar conviction).
Helping the formerly incarcerated is something Housing Works has done since the advent of its legacy, and the nonprofit is continuing to honor that commitment within the cannabis industry.
“Many people I’ve encountered have loved what we are doing for the formerly incarcerated and those who are experiencing homelessness. I think it’s so important for us to continue to spread the word that not only is Housing Works now selling cannabis, but we are doing good for our community and offering opportunities to those who’ve been impacted by the War on Drugs,” Nugent said.
Reflecting on Opening Day at Housing Works
Like many dispensaries throughout the nation, Housing Works launched with just cash-only transactions available, but the location plans to introduce online ordering and delivery to customers very soon.
For now, cash gets interested consumers access to flower (priced between $20-$30 for an eighth) and pre-rolls from local grower and premier cannabis company Florist Farms – both of which were a big hit on the crowd-drawing opening day.
“We’re diligent about making sure the vendors we work with are New York-based and minority owned – whether it be women-owned, smaller organic farms, LGTBQ+ or BIPOC – and ensuring our staff is diverse, with a focus on those formerly incarcerated.”- Sasha Nugent, Housing Works Cannabis Co
“The grand opening was a whirlwind! We had a little under a month to pull everything off, which included finding the best staff and a location in Manhattan close to the communities we serve, along with making sure all regulatory guidelines were met,” Nugent said.
“We hoped to show New Yorkers a good time while also educating them about our mission – and letting them know where the proceeds from the dispensary will go.”
All types of 21+ New Yorkers were present for Housing Works’ first day: everyone from the typical, well-informed cannabis connoisseur to someone walking in off the street to try an edible for the first time.
“Sales have far exceeded our expectations. We see roughly 700 people a day on average and have received extremely positive feedback,” Nugent said.
The team at Housing Works hopes to establish a solid tradition of giving back and prioritizing communities in need as New York’s market establishes and expands – something that will influence the rest of the nation to banish the unjust ritual of white collar weed newbies with fat pockets stealing the revenue from legacy operators for good.
“We’re diligent about making sure the vendors we work with are New York-based and minority owned – whether it be women-owned, smaller organic farms, LGTBQ+ or BIPOC – and ensuring our staff is diverse, with a focus on those formerly incarcerated,” Nugent said.
“Our hope is that we give them a chance to truly learn the business, so that in the future they might obtain their own license and run their own dispensary. We hope the dispensaries that open after us also help to keep New York’s promise to give smaller businesses a chance to flourish in the market.”
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