Our Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce team coined the phrase “CannaBusiness” three years ago for our first large event in anticipation of the legalization of marijuana in New York state. Since our inaugural conference in front of a sellout crowd at the Joseph A. Floreano Rochester Riverside Convention Center, we have also held a series of webinars and events, bringing foremost experts and thought leaders to help us educate not only our members and business leaders, but the entire community.
Whether or not one agrees with the legalization of adult-use cannabis is immaterial. It is here, and it is our responsibility to capitalize on this reality for our region. On behalf of the Chamber, we feel our responsibility is twofold. First, we aim to prepare our members and business community for the significant economic opportunities that lie ahead. Second, we will serve as a voice for those same members and business community to ensure that concerns and challenges can be addressed by both state and local leaders.
The Greater Rochester Chamber hosted another CannaBusiness conference on May 12. The sole purpose of this event was to have NYS leaders provide an update on issues regarding their regulatory environment and implementation strategy. We had a crowd of nearly 150 business leaders and community members in attendance at this private, adult-only event to listen to a series of speakers, beginning with New York State Assembly Majority Leader Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes. Hailing from Buffalo, Peoples-Stokes has been one of the foremost leaders helping to bring adult-use marijuana legislation to fruition, as well as passionately advocating for opportunities for those who have been negatively impacted by this formerly illegal trade.
Peoples-Stokes addressed the social justice issues that have come up from marijuana, wherein both people of color and marginalized neighborhoods have been the most impacted by both the illegal sale and enforcement of marijuana laws over many decades in Rochester and around the state. Now with recreational cannabis use being legal, there are a number of opportunities in manufacturing, retail, agriculture and other ancillary businesses that could provide great opportunities for these same individuals to create new careers and grow wealth.
Our moderator, Kaelen Castetter, led various panels, including one on business opportunities and economic development with panelists who have owned and led businesses in the CBD or cannabis arena. Each one of these leaders outlined what they saw are the challenges, but more importantly, the opportunities that lay ahead with the future retail explosion in this industry. Those who have the proper entrepreneurial spirit will be able to find new career and business opportunities here in the Greater Rochester region.
Our second keynote address was delivered by Chris Alexander, executive director of the New York State Office of Cannabis Management, which is the entity that will be overseeing the various implementation and regulatory challenges that will go with the full-scale legalization and opening of the cannabis retail markets.
It was great to have Alexander in Rochester, as we had the pleasure of meeting with him the night before the event. Alexander is going to be the key leader answering to the Governor and Legislature going forward and has awesome responsibilities ahead of him. I was so impressed that he came here not only to speak, but to listen to various constituencies and understand their priorities and concerns.
We also had a panel on policy and implementation. This was another fascinating discussion on the most effective ways to help this industry grow, but also to address the health and safety challenges that have been expressed throughout the legislative process. One of our speakers, Sen. Jeremy Cooney, has been one of the most vocal leaders within our local delegation and has consistently carried concerns and issues back and forth from our constituents to the leadership in Albany. As many key policies are still being developed, the conference gave us a great opportunity to see the direction in which the state is going, which appears to be a very thoughtful, methodical approach.
Our legal community has been very actively involved with helping guide business through the full implementation and we had three local attorneys participating on an excellent panel discussing regulations and compliance. Both in the private and public sector, there are many complexities to this new industry. Many organizations have concerns related to usage while driving, operating machinery or carrying out normal work duties. The testing technology to pinpoint the impact on one’s ability to function normally will be key, and we expect more to come in the near future.
The day was outstanding and invaluable in so many ways, with the audience remaining respectful and engaged throughout the day. Peoples-Stokes received not one, but multiple standing ovations from the crowd. There appear to be many more questions, concerns and suggestions, however, that are being articulated about this monumental change for the state.
New York state decriminalized marijuana many years ago. This new change is going to be about full-scale legalization. From a law enforcement perspective, one of the key issues is driving and operating vehicles under the influence. The concern is that standard testing for marijuana detects use for weeks past a point that it would impact that person’s abilities or motor skills. Again, we are confident that technology is being worked on right now to help address this issue. Once addressed, I do think it will ease some of the concerns that law enforcement and victims’ advocacy groups have expressed throughout the legalization discussion.
Like many changes in technology that we see today, the legalization of cannabis will be a new disruptive addition to our local and regional economy. There are ample opportunities that lie ahead for people at many different levels. It is our hope that the cannabis industry is not over-regulated to the point of stifling it, or over-taxed to the point of driving prices up so high that customers still go to the street level black markets, as those markets have a negative impact on quality of life in our neighborhoods.
There has to be a balance. If the motive is simply profit for the state, this change will not sustain itself. But if the state’s vision is for a long-term success, looking at sustainable economic development and health opportunities, and also addressing the quality of life issues emanating from illegal drug markets, then it can be successful.
Like in any economy, the underground cannabis economy will still want to compete with the New York State regulated cannabis economy in terms of price and quality. The state must be nimble, flexible and focused on what the long-term goals are. From a Chamber of Commerce perspective, we support the fact that this could help grow the economy and provide new career and job prospects. Our young leaders coming out of high school and college can pursue these new opportunities and achieve great economic success in the future.
We have spoken to and studied states like Colorado, Massachusetts and California, all which have had varying degrees of success and challenges. In Massachusetts, lines outside retail markets can go for several blocks. This reinforces the potential here in our Rochester region and New York state. With a customer base that strong, the retail markets and businesses can truly flourish if given the right preparation and support.
I am proud of our Chamber team for their leadership on the CannaBusiness events, and grateful for the sponsors, leaders and content experts who have provided insight, expertise and a view into the future of this emerging economic reality for Rochester and the Finger Lakes. If legal adult-use cannabis is rolled out carefully and thoughtfully, it has the potential to be a very strong economic boost for our regional economy and positively impact job growth. Let’s hope that the spirit of Cannabusiness keeps our region on this exciting path to the future and maintains a healthy balance in identifying and addressing both the opportunities and the challenges.
Robert J. Duffy is president and CEO of Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce. Contact him at [email protected].l