The first thing Willie Thomas, 37, thought when he learned about the legalization of recreational cannabis in New York in March 2021 was that he had an opportunity to join the industry.
"I was actually pretty excited about this opportunity, but I was also skeptical because of the underground market. It will be hard to compete with them," he told NYSCC.
Over a year after the announcement of cannabis legalization, Thomas, who lives in Rochester, NY, had the chance to apply for the Conditional Adult-Use Retail Dispensaries (CAURD) program, which will allow the first retail dispensaries to open for legal adult-use cannabis sales in New York.
The CAURD program aims to embody the spirit of cannabis legalization in New York by giving individuals and those affected by the war on drugs an opportunity to join the legal industry. The application requirements for the CAURD program follow strict criteria.
Applicants who wish to get a CAURD license can apply as a qualifying business or non-profit. To qualify they must indicate how they have been affected by a cannabis-related conviction before March 31, 2021, and demonstrate proof of owning 10% of a business that was profitable for two years.
Thomas told NYSCC he applied for a CAURD license just before the application window closed. The process of applying made him reflect on the past few decades. The impact that the war on drugs had on his life was significant.
Born in Florida, Thomas signed up for the Navy when he was 18. Just a year later he was caught on a drug charge after he signaled to an undercover police officer where to find drugs.
"I was standing by a store, and an undercover officer asked me, 'Do you know where to buy any drugs?' I didn't sell drugs, but I knew where everybody got them. So, I took him to some people that sold drugs. I ended up having to do two years in prison and two years on probation," he said.
In legal terms, Thomas was subjected to the law enforcement practice of entrapment, which occurs when a law enforcement officer or a controlled informer causes someone to commit an offense that can be prosecuted.
Shortly after his release, Thomas relocated to New York in 2008 after being kicked out of the military.
But moving states did not mean he would escape the war on drugs. In 2013, he was found with a small amount of cannabis following a stop-and-frisk activity, which is a policy that permits a police officer to temporarily detain, pat down and search a person suspected of criminal activity.
"I ended up getting a citation ticket to go to court, but they didn't write a court date on it. So, I had a warrant for about three years. I wasn't a drug dealer. I was just a smoker, but I had to do 60 days in jail for that story," he said.
During his period in jail, his car was stolen and someone broke into his house.
"I lost my car and all the belongings in my apartment during my arrest. Everybody knew I was in jail, so people just broke into my house and took all my stuff," he said. He was arrested again in 2016 and was charged with resisting arrest.
Since then, Thomas has recovered from the consequences of his legal issues and started a catering industry business in 2016. It has been turning a profit since 2020.
Both of his cannabis-related convictions and two years running a successful business qualified him to apply for a CAURD license.
As well as being an economic opportunity, Thomas's decision to enter New York's adult-use legal industry was also led by a passion for cannabis.
He started consuming cannabis when he was around 16 years old. He used to cultivate cannabis to make and sell edibles and infused treats.
Now, he wants to open a dispensary and join New York's legal market, even though he still feels that many people are skeptical about legalization.
"We have a lot of cheap and good quality cannabis coming in from California, so it's hard to compete with the underground market. I used to be part of the legacy market, so I totally understand them. I try to bring a lot of the underground guys to the table so they can work on getting their paperwork to get a license. I need them to stop for my business to be successful. We have to play along with each other," he said.
Thomas explained that although some legacy operators want to enter the legal industry, many others prefer to operate in the legacy market. Some lack the financial means to bear costs and don't know how to run a legal business.
For his own business prospects, Thomas is skeptical about the location he would get if New York regulators grant his application.
The Dormitory Authority of the State of New York (DASNY) is responsible for finding locations for the first dispensaries that will open in the state.
Thomas initially thought DASNY would buy real estate properties, and the applicants who got the CAURD licenses would have to pay it back. However, DASNY will only lease spaces, and CAURD licensees won't be able to buy the property. The brokerage firm CBRE Group is scouting locations on behalf of DASNY.
"I wouldn't want New York State to give me a place that they already built out and then have to pay a landlord back. Unless I owned the property, I wouldn't mind paying the loan back because the property would be mine. But I don't want to pay a loan back on a property that isn't mine, and I will never own," he said.
Back in June, DASNY closed a request for proposal (RFP) for businesses that provide design, construction, and other identified services necessary to renovate existing spaces. A wide range of contractors, architects, interior designers and others have supplied their information and willingness to be a part of the creation of conditional adult-use cannabis retail dispensary facilities for operation by Social Equity Licensees.
The dispensary Thomas might end up running may look different than what he wishes. Thomas said he would like to be able to suggest ideas he has on setting up his dispensary.
"New York State will probably give us a cookie-cutter type of facility with just the basic necessities. I believe we can probably customize it with the rest of our capital expense money. Every dispensary wants to give its users a unique experience. We don't want them all to look alike because they won't be competitive. I hope New York State allows us to customize our dispensary," he said.
To complete his application for a CAURD license, Thomas has yet to pay the $2,000 non-refundable fee.
He complained that for people who are supposed to be social equity applicants, it can be hard to find this money.
"This is a new industry for New York. Nobody really knows how to do it here. It's been done in other states. But this is our first time in New York, so there will be little mishaps. It's going to be bumpy. But for the most part, I feel like the regulators are doing a good job, although the application was kind of confusing in some parts," he said.
Thomas assured NYSCC that he would put all his efforts and energy into his cannabis dispensary if he got the CAURD license.
If granted a license, he would call his store 'Top Flight Cannabis Company.'