An iconic part of the landscape of New York City, with a place in the hearts of visitors and natives alike, the bodega is an adventure land that sells food, lotto, and beer on a 24-hour basis. Now, they’re aiming to be your go-to for some sweet ganja, once New York State finally goes legal.
Last Sunday, representatives of the United Bodegas of America (UBA) held a press conference in front of Anthony’s Mini Market in the Melrose neighborhood of the Bronx, where they stated their case. They urged Governor Andrew Cuomo and the state Senate to consider allowing bodegas to sell cannabis to the public in whatever legalization bill they put forward. As spokesperson Fernando Mateo told attendees, “We will follow the rules, the regulations and we will make sure that none of that is broken. But allow us to be part of a new industry that is coming into the city.”
UBA members have crafted a proposal expressing their hopes to be included in the process, and are planning to send it to Governor Cuomo. “Bodega owners are honest, hard-working people who employ over 100,000 people in the NYC area alone, we deserve to participate in this new opportunity,” wrote president Radames Rodriguez in the proposal. Having people of color be a part of cannabis is also a major part of the UBA’s mission.
The fact that bodega owners are making this move is a bit of keen timing on their part. While there are multiple legalization proposals on the table from the New York State Senate and NYC’s city government, they both include provisions for equity, including priority licensing for minority and women-owned businesses and the sealing of criminal records of cannabis offenses that wouldn’t be crimes anymore.
A report from NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer’s office, issued last December, noted cannabis’ impact on communities of color—the cannabis-related arrest rate is THIRTEEN times higher in East Harlem that in the neighboring area of the Upper East Side, and the highest number of weed arrests recorded took place in the Brownsville and Ocean Hill neighborhoods in Brooklyn between 2010 and 2017—and concluded that that there should be more minority involvement in the cannabis industry. The expected windfall from legalization in New York State on an annual basis is $436 million, and NYC would see about $336 million of that. After being arrested at higher rates for soon-to-be-legal cannabis offenses, Stringer’s report suggested that minority communities deserve opportunities to cash in on the cannabis industry, and that the city should spend some of that tax windfall to help them do it. One idea was an incubator hub run out of the city’s small business department that would assist people from the Black and Latinx communities who want to get into the cannabis industry.
But if you ask the UBA, allowing cannabis sales in bodegas could create that equity from the get-go. They represent a pre-existing physical retail network, and one with a history of being part of the community. There are currently 16,500 bodegas operating across the five boroughs according to a recent survey. Of that number, 20% have Latinx ownership. While Latinx people once made up the bulk of bodega ownership in New York City, rents rose, and many sold off their businesses to people from Middle Eastern and South Asian nations like Yemen, Qatar, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, who were very interested in business ownership. Overall, bodega ownership skews heavily towards people of color.
If the legislation that’s currently being reviewed in the State Senate goes through in April, a process for bodega owners to apply to a special small business office for permits to officially become a retail dispensary would be set up. Their dispensary would be separate from the regular business they conducts. If they also want to package and process marijuana on-site, that requires standalone licenses from the health department.
Such a move could share cannabis revenue across a much broader—and more diverse—population of business owners, instead of the by five companies that currently operate dispensaries in New York City:. ColumbiaCare and Etain Health have locations in Manhattan, Vireo Health operates in Queens, Pharmacannis is in the Bronx, and MedMen is set to open a 2,000 square-foot dispensary space close to Bryant Park in Manhattan and a clinic in Long Island. Most of these shops are polished and chic, setting them far apart from your average neighborhood bodega.
Bodega owners interested in getting into the legal cannabis industry see this, and hope to shake off the negative reputation that they’ve gotten as backdrops for violence and illicit drug dealing by participating in the cannabis industry in a positive way. After years of the city levying fines against them for criminal drug offenses taking place outside of their businesses, even as they helped police to identify stores selling loosies (untaxed cigarettes) and illicit items like K2, they realize that asking for inclusion in the cannabis industry is the first step on a long journey, but argue that it’s a much more fair way to go.
However, besides the negative perceptions, there’s also the hurdle of the existing cannabis retailers, who have deep pockets and don’t want competition. The original five medical marijuana companies already filed suit against the state to block the authorization of five other companies entering the field, though the suit was eventually overturned. The potential for major legal marijuana money is immense in New York City and competition is sure to be fierce. But the bodegas are willing to fight for it.
“All this money should not go to white-owned businesses,” Mateo, the UBA spokesman, argued at the conference. “It should not go to corporate America. It should be shared with the underdogs.”
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