New York cannabis store licenses look to undo stigma placed on former convicts

State's program giving many a second chance.

When Roland Conner was a teenager in the 1990s, he was imprisoned on a marijuana-related charge.

Conner told ABC News that he struggled with the stigma of that criminal record for a long time, but recently his past has helped him and his family in a major way. In January, Conner opened Smacked! Village in Manhattan and became the first Black-owned legal cannabis store in New York City.

"It was surreal because a lot of the time you try to hide your past, especially when it's negative," he told ABC News Live.

Roland Conner, the owner of Smacked! Village, speaks with ABC News' Mona Kosar Abdi.
ABC News

Conner's story is one that New York officials, cannabis reform and criminal justice reform activists said can be replicated across the country to help the generations of Black Americans whose lives were marked by previous marijuana laws.

"We've been talking about the opportunity to take what was a tool of systemic racism in some ways being implemented in communities like New York and use it now as a tool for reparative and restorative justice and further opportunity for those communities," Dasheeda Dawson, the founding director of Cannabis NYC, the city office that oversees legal cannabis businesses, told ABC News.

Last spring, a year after New York State legalized recreational marijuana, New York City Mayor Eric Adams created the Cannabis Equity Program. The program helps New Yorkers who were negatively affected by the state's previous drug laws obtain a Conditional Adult-Use Retail Dispensaries license, or a "CAURD."

At least 30% of the applicants applying for the license must have had a "justice-involved" history related to a previous marijuana arrest and shown entrepreneurial experience, according to state rules.

Dasheeda Dawson, the founding director of Cannabis NYC.
ABC News

Dawson noted that the "justice-involved" criteria include applicants who had family members who were arrested on previous marijuana-related charges.

"CAURD is really intended to focus on those who have been directly impacted," she said.

Conner, who operates Smash! with his family, said his store has helped him grow closer with his son.

"This means something to a lot of men who look like me and those who don't even look like me," he said. "Because a lot of times we lose our kids…They [are] like balloons, they get caught in the wind and they're gone."

Arana Hankin-Biggers, president and co-founder of Union Square Travel Agency, speaks with ABC News' Mona Kosar Abdi.
ABC News

Dawson said customers buy cannabis products for recreational purposes and to treat health issues such as chronic pain.

Arana Hankin-Biggers, the president and co-founder of the cannabis dispensary Union Square Travel Agency, partnered with the nonprofit agency the DOE Fund, which works to help formerly incarcerated New Yorkers learn new skills and get back on their feet, for her CAURD application.

Hankin-Biggers told ABC News that it was just to set up this partnership, where half of the proceeds from the store go to the DOE Fund's projects.

"There are still over 40,000 in prison, primarily Black men on cannabis charges," she told ABC News. "There are instances and stories of individuals who had a dime bag and who were arrested and sent to jail for seven years."

Customers buy cannabis products at Smacked! Village.
ABC News

Twenty-two states have legalized recreational marijuana and 13 of those states have implemented social equity programs. Dawson said other states purposely excluded entrepreneurs with previous drug-related records.

"By virtue of the fact that we are prioritizing that group, we are setting a standard not just in the United States, but globally. And that's where I think New York can really be a pioneer," she said.

In this Jan. 24, 2023, file photo, owner Roland Conner makes the first marijuana purchase from his son Darius at the opening of Smacked LLC, the first New York cannabis dispensary owned by a justice impacted individual in New York.

Conner said he was grateful for the opportunity to come back from his past and to help others in the community.

"I made a lot of mistakes now, you know, but being able to correct those mistakes and move forward and be here right now and know the inadequacies is not there… I'm strong," he said. "I feel powerful."

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