After New York State failed to legalize recreational cannabis earlier this year, activists in the state faced an enormous moment of reckoning: What went wrong? What could be done to ensure the same mistakes won’t be repeated?
Many interlocking factors that led to the bill’s failure to pass (as well as a separate attempt to expand the state’s meager medical marijuana program): Governor Cuomo’s inability to legislate, a sharp divide between New York City and the state’s more conservative upstate region, a lack of consensus among lawmakers about social equity measures, pressure from cannabis lobbyists, and a strong showing by fervent anti-legalization groups.
Out of the legislature’s failure, however, has risen a new entity to help tackle the issue: a brand-new chapter of the national advocacy group NORML, dedicated to championing cannabis consumers in New York City, which smokes more pot than any city in the world and is home to a vibrant and long-standing cannabis culture.
To learn more about the burgeoning organization, we caught up with Ryan Lepore, the chapter’s deputy director, to learn more about the chapter’s goals and how they are preparing for legal cannabis in the Empire State.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Tell me about your relationship with cannabis. How did you end up in this role?
My relationship with cannabis started when I was a teenager. It’s not something I want to flaunt at all, but when prohibitionists warn us that kids will have access to cannabis, [it’s important to acknowledge] they already have access to it.
Now I work at PrestoDoctor, the first company in California to help patients get a medical card online. On top of that, I used to work in the New York Legislature. By the time I left, I was the District Office Director for Assemblymember David Buchwald. I can proudly say in 2014 I was on the floor when [New York’s medical marijuana legislation] the Compassionate Care Act passed. It was 2 or 3 AM and all these legislatures were falling asleep, but it was pretty momentous.
I was brought on to the board of Empire State NORML this spring. Prior to that, I had become friendly with [former Legislative Director] Doug Green and [Executive Director] Ben Leiner. For the longest time, I was the biggest fan of all these people (laughs).
Why does New York City need its own chapter of NORML?
As you know, New York State did not legalize in the last legislative session. We were starting to realize that there’s a divide between the city and the rest of the state. Upstate resembles a lot of the Midwest and rural America; Rust Belt Syndrome impacts New York State in general. New York City is its own world. There was a divide in messaging.
I didn’t realize how much rich cannabis culture there is in the city before I moved here!
NYC’s relationship with cannabis has been extremely influential in the national and international world of cannabis. You have strains that came out of NYC that are commonly crossed. Delivery in NYC has probably been the best delivery in the country for the longest time. It was here before legalization was even a thing, and NYC has always been ahead of the curve with consumption experiences like infused dinners, which have been happening for a long time in the city without the industry even being a thing in the city. When the study came out saying that the city smokes the most pot in the world, I wasn’t surprised.
Let’s talk about some of your top priorities with NYC NORML.
For being the top consuming city in the country, consumers aren’t really being represented here. The great thing is that criminal justice, equity reform, and community reinvestment are getting the conversation that they should. A lot of politicians are very uneducated when it comes to cannabis, and never thought they’d have to deal with this topic this soon in their political careers. Because of that, a lot of them have been getting lobbied by prohibitionists who are very well funded. Also, cannabis companies that can afford lobbyists don’t always represent consumer interest.
People that have already been in the industry for a long time should be able to stay in the industry (when it becomes legal). A lot of these people should be transitioned to the legal industry. That’s a top priority, not just for moral reasons but for economic reasons. It would solve the issue that other states encounter where they legalize and then try to create a market out of thin air. People who have been risking their lives for this, all their lives, get cut out of it, while someone who had never thought of it wants to make a quick buck is suddenly able to play. They should be incentivized to participate.
We want to ensure that cannabis can be bought at an affordable price and also that you can grow it at home. In NYC, homegrown may not be good for the energy grid; my personal goal is to instill more sustainability practices in the industry. It’s better for business if we go after this now as opposed to after the fact. If businesses are smart, they should incorporate policies before legalization goes into effect. It saves them money, it helps the environment.
We want to remain an advocacy group after legalization happens. At NYC NORML, we want to remain the group that people go to when there are things that aren’t perfect with the laws, after the fact.
I’ve heard people make the argument that state politicians won’t touch legalization in this upcoming session, being a big election year. What’s your take on that?
I think there are a lot of external factors out of the state’s control that will contribute to it potentially being a part of the conversation; it’s always possible. It’s a question of the ‘how.’ It’s just a matter of time, there’s no doubt about that.