Right Place, Right Time: Chris Alexander Talks Ups & Downs Of Growing New York's Cannabis Market

Right Place, Right Time: Chris Alexander Talks Ups & Downs Of Growing New York's Cannabis Market


In 2021, the state of New York became the 16th state to legalize recreational cannabis use. The laws went into effect after lengthy debates over who would benefit most and how the tax dollars generated would be allocated. But that was just one step.

The next step would be the biggest: who would be in charge of crafting this new program and making it make sense. That job went to Chris Alexander. 

A long-time advocate for social justice, racial equity, and civic engagement, Alexander was tapped to be the inaugural Executive Director of the New York State Office of Cannabis Management by Governor Kathy Hochul. 

Prior to the appointment, Alexander had been the architect of the Start SMART NY campaign to end cannabis prohibition, and the lead drafter of the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act, New York's marijuana legalization bill.Now, his job is to help bring the cannabis industry to life in the empire state. Sounds like fun, right? 

We sat down with Alexander to speak about his activism background, the ups and downs of growing New York’s budding cannabis industry and how he’s dealing with the gray market. And we couldn’t end the conversation without finding out which emcee reigns supreme on his Top 5. 


CashColorCannabis: While preparing for this conversation, I tried to watch some of your past interviews. I was very interested in getting to know the man who they used to call Mr. President.

Chris Alexander: That's something my big sister started. A little inside joke. I’m always happy to talk about what we're doing here in New York. It's been a journey, but we're running, you know, the New York market is getting ready to really explode. And I'm excited to be here at this time.


CCC:What made you want to jump into the cutthroat world of politics? 

CA: I started with political campaigns. It was just kind of a natural place for me. My father was somebody who would always say, ”If you want something to change, you got to go out and do it,” I got engaged with some campaigns and then transitioned to more official government work, then to the advocacy space, and then back into government. Now I find myself kind of back here, at this time doing something that I could never have imagined. Being in this seat and  bringing this office to life has been super exciting.


CCC: How much pressure has it been to be the first person in this position? Were you stressed out at first? Or were you just kind of like, ”You know what, I can handle this?”

CA: You know, I probably should have been more stressed than I was at the time. The fact that the first thing that Governor Hochul did in her new post was to make my appointment.I didn't think I would be the one chosen for the role. At the point that I was chosen, I knew that I had a big community behind me. We had a lot of advocates who worked on this for a long time and the support from elected officials who cared about this and wanted it to go right. 


I have been building and leading the campaign to legalize. I was involved in negotiating the bill and leading that process. Governor Hochul’s level of support was something that really encouraged me as well. Now looking back at all this time, it's been so much of an education. We are setting up new infrastructure.I  could not be more proud of the team that we have here.


CCC: Talk to us about putting the infrastructure in place for a legal market. 

CA: I knew that we couldn't run from New York's history. We couldn't run from the fact that New York is the center of the cool. We couldn't run from the fact that there were going to be tons of cool brands coming up and having an incredible amount of influence almost immediately. This was going to be a real opportunity for small businesses to scale, so we really took a “small business first” approach to designing the market. A lot of that work was done with the drafting of the law and how we essentially created two tiers of operations, like liquor, where if you're in production, you can't be in retail. Creating a structure as opposed to something that's a little bit more open and more flat was super important because it created space down the chain for small businesses and independent shops. This is New York, you're going to have to compete. And that's what we've been able to do to set up that cut that competition space so far.


CCC: As of right now, New York has issued 215 provisional retail dispensary licenses. But also, as we speak, there are, at most, 12 that are actually operational.With so many licenses already out, what is the problem with opening more store fronts? 

CA: Obviously, we'd love to get more dispensaries open and operational quicker. We decided as a state to really dive into how to give licensees as much support as possible to get up. Naturally, in most markets it takes around six to 12 months for a dispensary business to get operational. We're right around that point. What I think is going to happen in the next couple of months is that we're gonna see a pretty sharp uptick in dispensaries opening. We have two or three that will open soon. It's just been the process. Now, the goal is just to wrap our arms around them, make sure that they know what they're stepping into and what they need to do to maintain compliance. I am very happy to see that we've had some success stories, and they're showing that New Yorkers will choose the regulated product. 


CCC: There's been a big fight against illicit stores in New York .From borough to borough. What has been your biggest obstacle when it comes to shutting down illicit operations?

CA: What I want to clarify is that what we're doing right now is not ”Prohibition 2.0.” We ended prohibition. We created a licensing scheme that would make sure that we were creating opportunities for those who didn't have them before. Now, as we're doing the hard work of getting things set up, you’ve got folks coming from out of state or folks from who don't really care about the principles that we have, that kind of jumped in and started operating shops as we were building out this campaign. 


CCC: What has been the hardest part of cracking down on illicit shops?

CA: The hardest thing has been making sure people understand the distinction between what's happening now versus pre-legalization.The second thing is educating law enforcement:there has been a sentiment among law enforcement and local governments that, “This is the end of prohibition. Now we're walking away, right? There's no further role for us to play in this.” Just like they enforced cannabis laws as they were previously, I need them to now protect what we're building. So my team has really taken it upon ourselves to go out and lead that effort. Our focus is not on arrest. We take cannabis and we seize a list of products. Now we're in the process of closing down shops, which is what we're kind of building towards. Trying to educate folks first to make sure people know that the law changed but you still need a license to sell cannabis. So it's been an uphill battle. 


CCC: What’s the most frustrating part about fighting illegal shops?

CA: What has been most frustrating about it is it’s confusing to consumers. I don't care about people who have continued to sell cannabis illegally like they did before we legalized it. We want to find ways to transition those people into the market. It’s the people who are opening up a dispensary on Fifth Ave or opening up a dispensary on Jamaica down by me. Customers don’t know what’s legal. They think that they're buying products that have been tested. They think that they're buying products from somebody who's not selling to kids. Unfortunately that's not what's happening. They are selling to children; they are selling products that look like candy and stuff that we don't allow in the regulated market.


CCC: Creating a successful social equity program has been something that no place has really captured as of yet. Now New York is up to bat. What are the plans to make social equity a success in the state of New York?

CA: Well, I think first we have to define what we're talking about when we say social equity. For me, that definition is all about access and opportunity. Are we making this opportunity actually accessible to those who normally are left out or left behind? I think that we are. The first licenses that we issued on the cultivation side went to small farmers who are included in our equity definition. Our first retail licenses are going to folks who've been previously impacted, arrested and convicted of cannabis offenses, which is the case for the CAURD program. 

I think other states tried to put forward a plan that was not living. What we are trying to do is to take a single-minded approach to inclusion. I think that what we've learned, and what we're trying to do here is make it clear that we’re not dealing with a single thing. It's not just how we license, but also how we design the market, what type of rules are okay. It's got to be comprehensive. It's got to be far reaching. And it's got to be continuous. We can't just rest on what we’ve already done.


CCC: You grew up in Hollis, Queens, so you were adjacent to rap history every day. When it comes to Hip-Hop, who are some of your favorite artists?

CA: Come on. I mean, you know I'm a big Queens Hip-Hopfan. When people ask me who's my top five, I just start with one. In my opinion, the greatest Hip-Hop artist to ever live is Nas. 

CCC: I love the fact that Nas has been able to maintain his voice and his career as long as he has. It is amazing. Hit Boy really has helped rejuvenate that man.

CA: I love the “Kings Disease” projects. I love being able to listen to an album straight through. I think that says a lot about the work.


CCC: This is your first time taking on a role like this. How do you see yourself progressing in your job and in the industry?

CA: That's an interesting question. Where I am right now, I’m thinking intensely about the next six to 12 to 18 months. I see the future as really tied to this program. We will be issuing some additional new licenses, and then those businesses are going to need some time to get up and running. I'm gonna be here to make sure they're successful. I want to make sure that we are able to look back in 10 years and say, “We built a program that created thousands of new entrepreneurs who are still owning and operating their businesses. That's my commitment now and I really can't see anything past the success of this program.


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