At an organic farm a couple of hours east of New York City, the marijuana harvest is in.
Freshly picked buds on Long Island — recently hung out to dry in shaded greenhouses — provided a perfect backdrop for New York cannabis officials to pose for a photo op Tuesday afternoon. The state’s first fall harvest is a major milestone for the legal, recreational marijuana market that’s been assembling over the past several months.
“Everything you see in this room, all this product will be going onto the shelves of our [first] dispensaries,” said Damian Fagon, chief equity officer at the New York Office of Cannabis Management.
But the selection of products that end up on dispensary shelves will likely be limited at first. That’s because New York’s cultivation program has made some sacrifices to the look and quality of the bud being produced in the name of equity and environmental sustainability.
Other regulatory and economic hurdles are still in play, despite New York regulators legalizing marijuana more than a year ago and scheduling the state’s recreational industry launch for the end of 2022. As the farm’s owner showed a gaggle of reporters around, he asked that both his name and the name of the farm be withheld because marijuana is still illegal on the federal level — and he’s worried about losing access to his bank.
Meanwhile, the early legal marijuana that’s harvested may not be what New Yorkers are used to getting from other legal states or the black market, especially in these early growing seasons. Most of what the Long Island farmer and others statewide have reared this year is biomass — plants that aren’t considered attractive enough or potent enough to be sold as smokable flower in the contemporary market.
“So, that means for extraction, for concentration, and [that is what’s] going to wind up in edibles, topicals, infused products, vapes, et cetera,” the farmer explained. Because marijuana is illegal at the federal level and can’t be transported across state lines, all states that regulate the plant have to set up their own cultivation programs in order to supply the legal market.
Some aspiring dispensary owners are worrying this inaugural harvest won’t be able to meet consumer demand. The first legal shops in the recreational market will be owned by people with past marijuana convictions or their family members. They will have to compete with both the existing black market — which has been flooded with unlicensed storefronts — and the major corporate players that eventually come on the scene.
Nicole N’Diaye, a Bronxite who cultivates cannabis upstate as the founder of NAHE Farms, said she has used this first season as a “test run” for outdoor plants. In the future, she said, she is planning to invest in a “build-out” to grow greenhouse or indoor cannabis as well.
“My outdoor flower is really looking good,” said N’Diaye. “But is it smokable? I have to say, I don't know.”
Trading consumer appeal for sustainability
The Long Island farmer said he is trimming and curing some of the plants he harvested in the hopes they can be used in pre-rolled joints – meaning the marijuana is ready to be smoked but doesn’t have the “bag appeal” that’s typically needed for display – you know, those big nugs.
“High-quality flower – that ‘zaza,’ or whatever you're gonna call it – it's gonna come from climate-controlled grows,” the farmer explained to Gothamist in a phone call prior to the tour.
He also raised concerns about whether plants grown organically outside will be able to pass New York’s testing guidelines for consumption — something he said he’s still discussing with regulators.
“I sure hope there's enough flower, and I hope it can pass muster for the testing,” said Jillian Dragutsky, a dispensary applicant who lives on Long Island and is hoping to open a shop in Manhattan or Brooklyn. “[Growing] an outdoor product can be difficult with rain and mold and pests and so on.”
Here’s how New York landed in this spot. The first batch of adult-use cultivation licenses the state awarded earlier this year went to New York farmers like the one on Long Island, who were already growing hemp — a cannabis plant that’s legal federally because it’s not considered psychoactive. Such hemp fields can be easily transitioned to raising marijuana.
But these initial cultivation licenses also limited farms to either an acre of outdoor marijuana plants, 25,000 square feet of greenhouse plants, or some combination of the two.
With the right skills and equipment, greenhouse weed can be put on display and sold for consumers to smoke, according to industry insiders. But the potent, bodacious-looking bud many New Yorkers are used to often comes from indoor operations, which are typically more expensive to build out and run, and less environmentally sound because of all the energy they consume.
“We have seen some very talented growers upstate who have been able to harvest some smokable cannabis, but it’s going to be a very small portion of what they harvest,” Fagon said, estimating that about 80% of the fall harvest from the 250 licensed growers statewide will be biomass.
He said the Office of Cannabis Management is currently working on new regulations to allow cultivators to “transition into a mixed-light environment to start growing that premium-grade flower,” meaning they would use a mix of natural and artificial light. If the regulations come out soon and some farmers start raising that higher-quality bud this winter, “you could see some of that flower in the dispensaries by spring,” Fagon said.
From farm to dispensary… maybe
Meanwhile, as growers start to process their harvest into consumer products, they are still uncertain about how many dispensaries will be able to sell their wares and when.
The state recently closed the window for New Yorkers to apply for the first batch of dispensary licenses. About 150 will be distributed in the first round and officials are rushing to evaluate the applicants to meet the goal of getting shops up and running by the end of the year.
But it’s still unclear exactly how many stores will be ready to open their doors before 2023.
State officials have promised to source real estate and retail space for these initial applicants. But as of last week, talks were still ongoing with potential landlords and leases hadn’t been signed, according to Jeffrey Gordon, a spokesperson for the Dormitory Authority of the State of New York.
Some states have taken an easier path to building up their marijuana supply. New Jersey, for instance, launched its recreational marijuana industry by allowing large companies that operate their own grow operations, processing facilities, and dispensaries to be first to market.
Still, many involved in the industry in New York said its approach, which is focused on giving smaller local players a leg up, is worth it.
“There's a sacrifice that's being made in a lot of other states to set up the market,” said Dan Livingston, executive director of the Cannabis Association of New York, which represents growers, processors, and vendors across the state. “They might be able to get started sooner, but they're sacrificing a lot of sustainability and social equity goals that are embedded in the legalization law in New York state.”
Both the owner of the Long Island farm and N’Diaye, the Bronx grower, said there was nothing wrong with smoking marijuana raised outdoors – it’s just not what people expect.
The Long Island farmer said he thought there would be a niche for it in the market, though. “Not everybody wants this crazy [potent] indoor stuff,” he said.
Even if the first dispensaries are short on flower, the novelty of buying legal, regulated marijuana may be enough to sustain the shops until a bigger yield comes in, said Jesse Campoamor, who negotiated the finer points of the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act when he served as deputy secretary of intergovernmental affairs under former Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
“It's not gonna be like, ‘Oh, I'm finding the best-quality product at the best price in the compliant store at first,” Campoamor said. “It's gonna be, ‘Look, I came to New York, and I bought legal weed. This is amazing.’”