When the war on marijuana swept through his New York City housing project decades ago, Roland Conner found himself in prison. It’s a time he’d rather not talk about.
Now, at the age of 50, he has opened the state’s first legal cannabis dispensary, run by someone previously penalized under New York’s old, prohibitive drug laws.
The store in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, dubbed “Smacked,” opened to the public Tuesday with state support. It’s New York’s second legal place to buy recreational marijuana, but the first to benefit from a program that grants dispensary licenses to people with criminal convictions related to cannabis.
Conner also receives support from a $200 million public-private fund to help “social justice” applicants for the tightly controlled state supply of pharmacy licenses. The money is intended to help clean up the ravages of the drug war, particularly in communities of color.
“When people passionately come together to fix something, they can actually make a difference. And now I’m a living example of that,” Conner said as he prepared for the store’s opening.
New York legalized recreational marijuana use in March 2021, but the state-sanctioned marketplace for the drug has been slow to develop. The first 36 licenses were issued in November. State officials have reserved 150 dispensary licenses in the first wave of applicants for people with past marijuana convictions.
Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, hopes Conner’s company will serve as a model for other would-be entrepreneurs.
“This dispensary is the latest example of our efforts to build the fairest and most inclusive cannabis industry in the country,” Hochul said in a statement last week. “As we continue to work to right the wrongs of the past, I look forward to new dispensaries opening soon – owned by those most impacted by the cannabis ban overhaul.”
Like many others, Conner was jailed for relatively minor offenses during his youth. A conviction in 1991 sent him away for months. Talking about it now, he said, only brings back trauma.
He has operated a property management business for the past 15 years and currently manages a temporary housing facility in the Bronx. This has given him the business experience needed to qualify for a pharmacy license.
Tracie Strahan reports on the opening day of the second legal marijuana dispensary in New York
Smacked will open as a pop-up dispensary while work on the storefront is being completed. The pop-up location will be operational through February 20 as management seeks to boost business and expedite sales before settling in a long-term location. His wife Patricia and his son Darius run the shop together with him.
They will have to compete with the countless illegal pharmacies in New York that have been in operation for a long time. When he opened his shop, Conner was aware that another unlicensed shop would soon be opening nearby. State officials say consumers shouldn’t trust what they find in unlicensed trucks, bodegas or street stalls.
At a recent City Council hearing, the Sheriff’s Office Cannabis Task Force said it was actively searching for illicit businesses throughout NYC, where an estimated 1,400 illicit businesses were operating without the state’s seal of approval. The task force has suspended 90 operations so far.
Conner remembers his youth when marijuana was part of everyday life. He grew up in the projects, in a poverty-stricken part of Far Rockaways, where some young men passed the time getting high.
“We were basically poor. Like any other housing project in New York City, it was riddled with poverty and drugs,” he said. “We went hungry a lot, but my mother did her best to make sure we were always full.”
The police were constantly patrolling the projects, he recalled. “Sometimes they would come up and down the block and we would see them coming in or they would just come out of nowhere,” he said. “They will just come out of nowhere and search us. And if they found any kind of drugs on you, they just locked you up.”
“Back in 1991 I started being jailed for cannabis and at that point just sucked into the streets. It’s been so long,” he said.
Years later, when his son began selling marijuana to support his family, Conner became alarmed.
“When I saw my son walking down that path,” he said, “I didn’t want him to start walking down that particular path and pinch himself.”
Only one NYC store has the legal right to sell cannabis, but the city sheriff says 1,400 stores are doing so illegally. Erica Byfield reports.
When the state opened a legal marketplace, Conner and his family decided to take a chance and apply for a pharmacy license.
“I had to take a step back and just listen to my father and find a way,” his son Darius said.
“He said there is a legal way to do what I’m doing now,” Darius Conner said. “At the end of the day, I really want to go in the right direction.”
Officials said Conner received support from the Bronx Cannabis Hub, established by the Bronx Defenders and the Bronx Community Foundation to support individuals applying for the first round of licenses. He also had the support of dozens of customers who waited in line early Tuesday morning — and they said they weren’t just there for the marijuana, but for the owner.
“This man was jailed for something that’s legal now, and I think that’s some kind of redemption,” said client Coss Martin, who also hopes to get one of the first 150 licenses, which are for those with a previous marijuana relationship reserved are conviction.
“I’m living in a dream, you know. Thank God I said ‘guilty’ because I’m applying for a license myself,” Martin said. “Hopefully we can open my shop next and create the same buzz that Roland is getting.”
Licensed growers in New York have $500 million worth of legal marijuana ready for sale — but there are no buyers yet due to the state’s delays in launching it. NBC New York’s Adam Kuperstein reports.
Federal data shows similar percentages of whites and blacks using marijuana, but arrest rates for blacks are much higher, according to reports from the American Civil Liberties Union and others.
“When people live in poverty, they do certain things that they normally wouldn’t do,” Conner said. “So if you’re not talking to poverty and you’re just talking to tough law enforcement without talking to why people do the things they do, that’s problematic.”
The New York State Cannabis Board plans to release preliminary sales information in February. The Housing Works Cannabis Company, which opened on Dec. 29, had over 500 customers buying product from the store within three hours of its first week of sales.
More cannabis dispensaries will open in the coming weeks – not just in Manhattan, but also in the five boroughs and in upstate New York.
NBC New York’s Gaby Acevedo contributed to this report.