Growing Concerns: Talk with Cannabis Control Board Member Jen Metzger | Chronogram Magazine
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Growing Concerns 

Talk with Cannabis Control Board Member Jen Metzger

Last Updated: 11/01/2021 12:55 pm
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On October 5, New York State’s Cannabis Control Board held its first meeting. Under the Marijuana Regulation & Taxation Act, the Cannabis Control Board (CCB) plays an important role in monitoring the rollout and implementation of cannabis in New York State: it’s responsible for creating the regulations for each of the cannabis programs; granting licenses, as well as revoking them upon violation; regulating the packaging and advertising of cannabis products; and overseeing the issuance of certain special permits. The CCB will also have the power to review all licensees two years into the program, to determine whether any one licensee has gained a large control of the industry and is undermining the aim of providing socially equitable business opportunities. As home cultivation of adult cannabis will be permitted, the Board will also be tasked with issuing regulations to prevent unsafe growing practices.

Former state senator Jen Metzger, a Rosendale resident who has served extensively in local government been a community advocate on sustainability issues for decades, was appointed to the CCB in September. I spoke with Metzger about her perspective on the MRTA rollout and her goals as a member of the Cannabis Control Board in late September.

—Brian K. Mahoney

Brian K. Mahoney: Do you know what your responsibilities are going to be on the CCB?

Jen Metzger: Well, the law is pretty clear what the responsibilities of the control board are. The control board is really the decision-making body responsible for all of the regulations, for all of the licensing, just pretty much across the board for all of the main decisions that have to be made to create the industry, and then to license the different businesses. So its authority is pretty extensive. And the newly created Office of Cannabis Management, it’s under the authority of the control board and we can delegate responsibilities to that office, to the executive director in the office. And this new body has to be fully staffed, so we’ve got quite a bit of work to do just getting everything operational.

And also, importantly, the State Cannabis Advisory Board has to be appointed as well. And that body, there are 13 members that have to be appointed. Seven by the governor, three by the Senate and three by the assembly. It’s going to be responsible for administering the Community Grants Reinvestment Fund that’s created. It has an important role to play when it comes to funding.

Brian K. Mahoney: The Community Grants Reinvestment Fund—that’s going to be the money from the taxed revenue on cannabis sales?

Jen Metzger: Yeah, exactly. It’s really detailed about the purposes for which the revenues are to be spent, but that’s a sizable portion and no other state that has legalized adult-use has dedicated such a large share of the funds to reinvestment in communities that have been disproportionately impacted by prohibition.

Brian K. Mahoney: Let me zoom out for a second. How are you feeling right now about the way that the MRTA is rolling out? For myself, I was kind of despairing that the regulatory apparatus was never going to get set up while Cuomo was governor.

Jen Metzger: Well, on the one hand it is disappointing that it took so long. Basically, politics were being played by the previous governor over the appointments, and it was delayed. But on the other hand, we have really great people in place in important decision-making roles. Hochul’s choices, I think were just fantastic. Chris Alexander as executive director of the Office of Cannabis Management, he has a lot of experience both in the law and in the industry. I know him from when I was in the Senate and he was on majority council and really played an important role in crafting the legislation and then went on to work specifically in these areas.

And I think Tremaine Wright is just going to be a fantastic leader at the head of the control board. She comes to it with experience. Beyond her experience in the Assembly, she was a small business owner. And we want to create an industry in New York that is fair, that really gives small businesses, small farmers, real opportunities, is not dominated by the wealthy and well-connected players. So far, at least, I think the appointments have bode really well.

Brian K. Mahoney: I have a question about the licensing criteria. The MRTA is being held up as a national model for its restorative justice provisions, including a goal of issuing 50 percent of licenses for social equity applicants. So that’s in the law, but now the rubber is going to meet the road and the CCB is tasked with coming up with the regulations. Is that correct?

Jen Metzger: Yes, absolutely. I mean, that is a part of it. And there’s a lot of guidance in the law about what we are to consider in developing the social equity plan, but this is all work that has to be done. And it has been challenging in other states. Massachusetts also sought to promote social equity. I mean, I don’t know where they are today, but I think as of last year they have maybe issued two social equity licenses, or something like that.

Brian K. Mahoney: Oh, boy. Not many.

Jen Metzger: Yeah, not many. And there are real challenges. There are real challenges in terms of having the capital, having the training, and having the resources to do this. Developing an incubator program is going to be really important. And we have to look at what we can do to support social equity applicants now. What tools do we have available in terms of loans and that sort of thing? We’re going to have to consider all the aspects of it. It’s incredibly challenging, but we also operate, I think really on a positive side, it is a closed market in New York. And there’s a lot that we can control through the licensing provisions to make sure that we’re really prioritizing social equity applicants. And I’m also very interested in the cooperative licenses. I think cooperative licenses are going to be really valuable for social equity applicants.

Brian K. Mahoney: Can you briefly explain what cooperative licenses are?

Jen Metzger: I’m not an expert, but the law is very specific. There are principles for cooperatives that they have to follow, but the members can be the consumers that are benefiting. Like a food co-op for instance, or they could be a worker-owned cooperative. There are different types of cooperatives, but they’re democratic by definition and decisions are made by the members who all participate actively in decision-making. And another benefit: they’re directly serving their community. They’re very local, but they also enable the pooling of talent and resources. And I think that’s going to be very helpful to applicants.

Brian K. Mahoney: For social equity applicants, I imagine one of the primary barriers to entry is going to be capital. My opinion: I think the state should really get the money behind these folks in some way so we don’t have multi-state operators coming in and taking huge stakes in these social equity enterprises. From a funding perspective, what can the state do to help the social equity applicants?

Jen Metzger: On a personal level, I agree with you. And I do think that we have to recognize that as we’re starting out, we don’t have the revenue yet. It’s going to be a little while before the industry is up and going and we’re collecting tax revenue to reinvest. And I think that we do have to look at ways in which the state can assist in providing loans and assisting social equity applicants with their capital needs to get off the ground.

Brian K. Mahoney: You were chair of the Senate agricultural committee, and certainly farmers are crucial to standing up this industry. How do you envision small farmers playing a role in the industry?

Jen Metzger: We want to see New York’s small farmers be able to take advantage of it. Just from the research I’ve done in other states, a lot of it has been dominated by indoor cultivation in giant warehouses. If farmers can grow outdoors, it’s more sustainable and less capital intensive. It’s going to be important to support that. And again, this is all sort of within the vision of this law to enable small businesses of all kinds, including small farmers, to access this industry. And distressed farmers, this is something, again, we have to come up with a definition for on the control board, but distressed farmers are amongst the types of applicants that can get priority licensing. And I think it’s going to be very helpful that we have microbusiness licenses in this program.

Brian K. Mahoney: The microbusiness licenses are akin to a farm winery or farm brewery license, right?

Jen Metzger: Right. The microbusiness license is the only vertically integrated license that’s allowed in the adult-use program. But yeah, it’s a small business, similar to craft and farm in other industries. And it also allows onsite consumption licenses as well.

Brian K. Mahoney: So that’s the only spot where you can grow it, sell it, and consume it in one spot.

Jen Metzger: Yeah. So these are definite opportunities for small farmers there.

Brian K. Mahoney: I heard Allan Gandelman of the New York Cannabis Growers and Processors Association on “Capitol Pressroom” a couple of weeks ago, saying that he thought that regulations might be in place by the end of the year so that the state could start taking applications beginning in January. And I thought that seemed wildly optimistic. What are your thoughts on timing?

Jen Metzger: We’re committed to get this regulatory framework in place. There is a process when you’re creating regulations. There’s a whole process for public input. But you can’t get around those requirements, and you shouldn’t. We want public input, and we want to consider that input before we finalize the regulations. But having said that, I’m going to work as hard as I can. And I know that my colleagues are also going to be working as hard as we can to get the best regulations possible in place, as soon as we can get them in place. But like everyone, I would love to see it in place so that we can have farmers do the planting they need for the next season, but we have to follow the process.

Brian K. Mahoney: Do you see any possible way that we might have an adult-use dispensary open in New York by the end of 2022?

Jen Metzger: Well, again, the hope is for that to happen. I’ll put it that way.

Brian K. Mahoney: And then because they would have to have stuff to sell, too, right? So that would mean that the farmers would have had to have been growing things beforehand.

Jen Metzger: Yeah. Right, right. So you have to have that in place. I can’t even speculate at this point, Brian. It’s really hard, but I think that we have to look at ways, we have to do what we can to move this forward so that farmers can be ready for the next season.

Brian K. Mahoney: Let’s talk sustainability. There is the provision that incentivizes sustainability when granting licenses. How do you envision that playing out on a practical level?

Jen Metzger: This is a particularly important issue for me. I’ve been working on climate and environmental and energy issues for many, many years, and we are in a climate crisis. And there’s just no excuse not to make the New York industry a model of sustainability along all lines. In terms of energy consumption, in terms of packaging, just in all ways. And we have broad authority to consider these aspects of the industry under the law. And the law mentions in a number of different places, the importance of protecting, looking at the environmental and energy impact in licensing and considering the ability of applicants to increase climate resiliency, minimize or eliminate environmental impacts. All of that is in there, and I think that we need to design regulations to achieve those goals and minimize the carbon footprint of production. Again, going back to what I said earlier about sort of small-scale and also outdoor production, that not only benefits small farmers, small businesses just because the capital requirements are lower. It’s also more sustainable from an energy perspective. In Massachusetts, the adult-use industry is responsible for 10% percent of the industrial energy consumption in the state. That is significant.

Brian K. Mahoney: Wow. Most of the grow in Massachusetts is indoors, right?

Jen Metzger: Yeah. And there’s been a lot of attention recently, and rightfully so, on the enormous climate impact of indoor grow. The lighting that is used is 50 to 200 more times more powerful than the lighting used in an office, but it’s not just the lighting. It’s the HVAC systems, it’s maintaining temperature and humidity levels. You’re essentially recreating what exists in nature indoors, and doing that requires massive amounts of energy.

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