What Brooklyn's First Dispensary Says About Medical Marijuana in New York

On Flatbush Avenue, tucked amidst the nexus of four iconic Brooklyn neighborhoods (Park Slope, Boerum Hill, Fort Greene, and Prospect Heights), medical cannabis company Citiva opened up their newest location at the turn of the new year.

Walking through the shiny glass door, you’re first struck by the sleek tidiness of the front lobby. Both the dispensary's resident pharmacist and receptionist greet visitors as they clear patients (as does any medical dispensary in the country) before allowing them through to the retail room. The natural lighting here makes this a decidedly less severe experience than in some of the other, more draconian dispensaries in New York City.

The existing medical program in New York is byzantine and requires monumental compliance from its few operators, Citiva among them. Due to so many challenges and weights on the process, chiefly vertical integration, the prices may not be what anyone is used to paying, but once the industry opens up, according to Citiva's vice president of operations Amy Holdener, this will dramatically change in favor of the consumer.

Under the current laws, the few operations in New York cannot sell flower, must abide by strict limits on product variation (Citiva has only 1:1 and 2:1 THC:CBD available), and must be top-down handling it all themselves, from a source farm (upstate in Warwick in Citiva's case) to each location in the state. Holdener says that Citiva wants a more open market, because vertical integration passes the costs to the patient.

“We have to own the land and facility, we have to manufacture and produce your own product, and those limitations mean you can’t reach the scale that other operations can," she told Civilized. Additionally, New York requires a pharmacist to be on premises during operating hours. “Security and pharmacy staff and the highly regulated medical market all drive the cost up,” she added.

You can blame the slow burn of New York’s medical cannabis program on the ineptitude of the state’s stewards, but companies like Citiva are doing everything in their power, no matter how difficult, to bring vital cannabis medicine to those who do qualify under New York’s regulations. In this testy climate, shops like this one finally provide not only access to safe, quality cannabis, but also coordinate patient care with medical providers, so it’s more than just a retail experience.

While some advocates are pleased with the opening of Brooklyn's first dispensary and what it represents on a macro level, others believe the gears are turning far too slowly. According to the New York Daily News, the NYPD still arrested 7,348 people for marijuana in 2018 and a disturbing 89 percent of folks arrested were people of color. Civilized asked Cannaclusive co-founder Mary Pryor and national project lead Kassia Graham what this New York cannabis milestone means, especially while talk of adult use legalization lingers in the context of what's still currently a restrictive medical program.

Graham and Pryor, who work hard to drive diversity initiatives in the cannabis industry and advocate for the victims of the Drug War, say they're excited to see this growth, “It’s a really big deal given location and access," said Pryor. "It’s a welcome item to the neighborhood.“

Thrilled as New Yorkers are, it did take four years to get a dispensary in Brooklyn. (After all, the state's medical program launched in 2014, and this syrup slow creep of progress has had its casualties.) “Having a dispensary in Brooklyn is a bit of a double-edged sword," said Graham. "It's great to have a dispensary near a transit hub. The location of Citiva means it's very accessible and people don’t have to trek too far to get what they need. Unfortunately — and this feels like beating a dead horse — people are still being jailed for possession of cannabis.”

Governor Cuomo and NYC Mayor De Blasio are paying lip service to the idea of righting the wrongs of the Drug War, but with talk of record sealing versus expungement, they’re already not going with the full scale measures of parity that activists have been calling for.

Holdener in particular says she felt very let down by the state’s restrictions on hiring. “The surrounding community was hit hard by the War on Drugs, and Citiva was disappointed in state regulations that prevented hiring of people with cannabis felonies," she said. "Hopefully when adult use opens up, it will allow Citiva to expand and open up jobs.”

As it stands, its wonderful that card-carrying Brooklynites can finally access commercially produced and lab-tested cannabis, but there are some hurdles for those who lack the means to pay the high prices or who may need items that the limited menus can’t provide. The Cannaclusive team points to both the costs — a doctor’s consultation is required to apply for medical card, which is not covered by insurance, and few conditions are accepted, which are exclusionary for many New Yorkers.

“The program has a way to go before I'd consider it a success," Graham said. "There aren't enough doctors authorized to provide assistance to patients who require cannabis and the list of illnesses that qualify isn’t expansive enough. Too many people are being left out.”

The numbers lean this way, in 2017 only about 31,000 New Yorkers were enrolled in a state with a population of 20 million. Pryor thinks the state is responsible for these shortcomings in the program. “The lack of full product selection within dispensaries, particularly the restriction of flower sales, prohibits a lot of uses for those who rely on the medicine for healing properties," she said.

The entire state is expecting massive changes when the adult use regulations finally come in. No one really knows which direction the state will take, but Citiva is ready and willing to adapt their business to provide cannabis to recreational users as well. Holdener stresses that they are committed to continued service of medical patients no matter which way it swings, and that Citiva is hoping to bring more unique CBD products to medical patients when the adult use market is running.

“When you look at Colorado and you see what topicals and powders and edibles and everything we can provide, we’re chomping at the bit to provide this variety to New Yorkers,” she said.

Brooklyn should celebrate this monumental happening in its long and complicated relationship with cannabis, and Citiva is hopefully the first of many pot shops in the borough. If this launch is a sign of the future, things are looking bright, but New Yorkers and Brooklyn residents in particular need that shimmer to be a beacon of justice, not just a shiny coin.

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