Photo Credit: Marc Gronich
Tremaine Wright appears before the Senate Finance Committee prior to her confirmation by the full Senate.

Governor Kathy Hochul was so eager to implement the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA) that she chose two people the night before she called lawmakers back to Albany earlier this month for an extraordinary session of the legislature. Hochul offered the candidates no information about salary or benefits package, and the candidates did not ask, according to the candidates who testified at a Senate Finance Committee the day after accepting the positions. Similar positions typically pay $220,000 a year.

“I voted against the bill,” Senator Simcha Felder (D-Borough Park / Midwood, Brooklyn) told The Jewish Press. “It being a gateway drug is one of the reasons I voted against it. Many, many people believe that it starts with somebody who is not used to smoking. It starts with the cigarettes and that’s not good for your health so that’s a big problem. There’s no question that it’s not good for your health.”

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The Orthodox Union agreed with Felder and the other major kosher certifying agencies who refuse to give a hashgacha for recreational marijuana.

“Just for the record, the OU does not certify any recreational cannabis,” Rabbi Moshe Elefant, the chief operating officer and executive rabbinic coordinator of the OU kashrut division told The Jewish Press. “If it’s just the leaf with nothing else then it doesn’t need supervision and it’s going to be smoked. There may be other ingredients involved in the processing that may need supervision.”

The MRTA is comprised of a Cannabis Control Board (CCB) and the Office of Cannabis Management (OCM). The CCB and the OCM will create and implement a comprehensive regulatory framework for New York’s cannabis industry, including the production, licensing, packaging, marketing and sale of cannabis products, according to the language in the legislation signed into law by then-Governor Andrew Cuomo five months ago.

“One of my top priorities is to finally get New York’s cannabis industry up and running. This has been long overdue, but we’re going to make up for lost time,” said Hochul.

Tremaine Wright, 48, a former member of the State Assembly, who represented the northern portion of Crown Heights, was chosen by Hochul to be the chairwoman of the CCB. Christopher Alexander, who helped write the legislation as a Senate employee, was chosen to be the executive director of the OCM. The law calls for a five-member board to oversee the creation and implementation of the OCM. Both individuals are black.

“These two individuals bring a wealth of knowledge and experience to their new roles,” said Hochul in a prepared statement. “I know they will do a tremendous job of outlining and implementing regulations that are safe, fair and transparent and that recognize the need to remedy the impact that prohibition has had on communities of color.”

Senator Diane Savino (D-Staten Island) disagreed with Hochul’s assessment that Wright brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to her new role.

“I’m somewhat mystified as to why the governor has decided to put you in charge of the cannabis board – a person with no experience in cannabis,” said Savino, a member of the Senate Finance Committee. “You have experience in a lot of things but I’m concerned you don’t have direct experience with cannabis or the cannabis industry itself. I would love to hear what you would do differently from other states.”

Savino listed states where the cannabis program is not working properly – including California, Oregon, Colorado, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Connecticut.

“I strongly suggest the first thing you do after today is to leave this state,” Savino said. “The first place you should go is to California. You should find out why their legal (marijuana) program had to be bailed out by the taxpayers to the tune of $100 million last month.”

“We need an interstate compact,” Savino said bluntly. “The idea that we would be growing marijuana in 50 states is absurd to me. It’s absurd. Create a real marketplace and eliminate the regulatory hurdles. That’s how we will achieve some of the things we’re talking about. That’s how we’ll be successful and that’s how we’ll avoid the mistakes made in those other states…. We would be committing political malpractice to ask people, small entrepreneurs, the MWBE (Mayor’s Office of Minority and Women-owned Business Enterprises), to put in their life savings only to go bankrupt.”

Wright, however, apparently has other priorities.

“I think that the primary responsibility at this moment will be to get this program up and running,” Wright said. “That means we have got to develop a staff, a team of people who can come together and attack the challenges that are right here before us. In addition to building up our staff and having a talented team, a supportive team and one that knows and understands that each role is very important to the rollout and success of this program we also have to make sure that we are prepared for the transition that is occurring simultaneously with the buildout of the staff.

Wright also told lawmakers she is focused on community outreach and public education.

Wright is a Brooklyn native, a graduate of Duke University and the University of Chicago Law School. Most recently she was the director of the Office of Financial Inclusion and Empowerment in the NYS Department of Financial Services.

Savino said she was prepared to vote against the nomination on principle. However, when the vote came to the Senate floor for a vote by the entire Senate, a voice vote was called for and it was not recorded how individuals voted.

The reaction from Wright’s former Assembly colleagues was overall positive.

“I know Tremaine Wright. She was a hard-working legislator,” said Assemblyman David Weprin (D-Holliswood, Queens). “I have a lot of respect for her. She’s smart. She was more of a moderate than some of the so-called progressives.”

It was Christopher Alexander who impressed lawmakers the most. Since he wrote the legislation, he interacted with most of them on a regular basis while developing the language for the bill.

Alexander said while the small business entrepreneurs will be eligible for state funding, he called it an investment instead of a subsidy.

“There is going to be some investment by the state to make sure those businesses can last,” Alexander told lawmakers during the finance committee meeting. “Some of that may come in the form of capital and other assistance. The goal is, with these businesses generating the revenue back to the state … 40 percent of which [will be used] to fund public education, 20 percent to fund drug abuse and treatment programs, and 40 percent to reinvest in the communities which have been ravaged by the war on drugs. I see it as an investment more so than a subsidy. It is the promise of meaningful support that has not been provided by many places across the country, many of which have failed because of the lack of access to capital.”

Some lawmakers worried that big business, such as Coca-Cola and Canandaigua Wine, will be the only entities able to survive. Since recreational marijuana is not legal in all 50 states and not legal in the eyes of the federal government, banks and other lending institutions are prohibited from loaning business owners money for their venture.

“The goal isn’t necessarily to prevent big business from coming into the industry in New York but definitely from allowing them to be the only operators in this space,” Alexander said.

Senators whose districts include Indian territories, which are sovereign nations, raised concerns about a black market or selling marijuana grown on the reservation tax-free, as has been the case with gasoline and cigarettes.

Christopher Alexander, 30, is a native of Hollis, Queens, with ancestry from Grenada. He is a CUNY law school graduate. Until recently he was the government relations and policy director at the Canada-based Village or Vill, LLC, a multi-state cannabis company. In the United States, Vill is incorporated in the state of Illinois. Alexander said since the Village is likely to bid for a cannabis license in New York he will recuse himself to avoid any appearance of a conflict of interest.

Shortly after the special session ended, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx) appointed Buffalo native Adam Perry, a graduate of the University of Michigan Law School, to serve on the CCB.

“I am proud that Adam Perry, a dedicated member of the Buffalo community, is the Assembly’s appointee to the Cannabis Control Board,” said Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes (D-Buffalo), sponsor of the marijuana legislation. “We fought so long and so hard to pass historic legislation that ensures marijuana justice and invests in the lives and communities of those who suffered for generations…. I believe Adam will work to uphold those principles in his new role.”

Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers, Westchester County) appointed former Hudson Valley State Senator Jen Metzger (D-Rosendale, Ulster County) to the CCB.

There is no word as to who the other two appointees to the five-member cannabis board will be. The two appointments are made by the governor.

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Marc Gronich is news director of Statewide News Service. He also operates the website JBizTechValley.com. He has been covering government and politics since 1981. His Albany Beat column appears monthly in The Jewish Press.
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