May 20th, 2021
We have recently learned of the intent to nominate New York’s current Director of Cannabis Programs, Norman Birenbaum to Executive Director of the incoming Office of Cannabis Management under our new Cannabis Law. I write with grave concerns that the legislative intent behind the legal passage of cannabis in New York will be abolished if this candidate is formally nominated and appointed into leadership roles of the incoming program, particularly the role of Executive Director.
As a potential nominee for this inaugural position, Mr. Birenbaum’s regulatory history is plenteous with policymaking and regulations that are antithetical to the legislative intent of the “Marijuana Taxation & Regulation Act” (MRTA) passed into Law. Within his current position of New York’s Director of Cannabis Programs, Mr. Birenbaum has repeatedly encouraged culturally insensitive policies into the proposed framework of New York’s incoming program and deployed tactics in his previous regulatory role that resulted in documentable public distrust and harm towards the existing patient community of that state. Many of his regulatory policies are widely known within the industry to encourage predatory practices, monopolization, and further systemic racism. Our role in New York demands attunement towards the diversity of New York State & our ambitious goals for social equity.
Examining Mr. Birenbaum’s tenure in Rhode Island revealed his history of aggressive tax tactics, including the use of law enforcement to carry out regulatory compliance, many of which are described as openly hostile to their vulnerable patient community. This is truly worrisome as one of the revered foundations of justice within our law's intent is to break the pattern of re-criminalization of cannabis patients and consumers. It should also raise concern that he enacted additional policies in Rhode Island which resulted in patient privacy and legal issues, as well as protests and rallies against his leadership. This track record of harmful regulatory strategies in a state of considerably smaller size and population stands as a stark warning about the potential impact of his leadership in a state as large and diverse culturally, economically, and racially as New York - we are the Empire State.
The MRTA provides an improved framework to ensure success in the context of justice and social equity. The magnitude of this landmark endeavor requires a candidate with not only experience on both of these priorities but also an open mind towards exploring new strategies in partnership with criminal justice and social equity experts. It is important to note that in 2017, Mr. Birenbaum was not chosen for the Executive Director role by Massachusetts’ Cannabis Control Commission for many of the misgivings mentioned (as well as having true integration in the already established cannabis community that another candidate already held). Research from the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission public meeting minutes underscores the hesitancy in approving this candidate who did not have the humility necessary to successfully run an ambitious Cannabis Program. Based on multiple conversations and the candidate’s demonstrated lack of concern, it‘s clear that he has not historically been amenable to adopting social equity-focused provisions and even furthermore has been characterized as closed-minded towards ideas other than his own on this issue. This is all while holding zero credibility behind his lack of action behind implementing or supporting social equity parameters in the past.
Two years into his tenure, New York’s regulatory successes should be apparent to the wider community and indisputable to the industry, as seen in other state programs with policy changes within similar timeframes. He has no experience incorporating any policies that help communities of color or the legacy market transition into the legal framework. Instead, there is a demonstrated history of ignorance when it comes to the cannabis community and its already established marketplace. This becomes even more problematic because New York’s legacy market is debatably one of the largest in the nation, and insensitive regulation in other markets towards legacy transition have hindered the ability to maximize participation from its consumers and collect tax revenue for impactful social equity programs in other states.
Communities harmed and inhibited by prohibition are the core populations that the MRTA seeks to empower and transition. Having public trust from these constituencies who have been traditionally harmed by prohibition and are already integrated with the community, is essential to the successful execution of this groundbreaking legislation. Public distrust of this suggested executive director will discourage engagement and recreate the same societal dilemmas the law seeks to resolve.
His appointment is an unnecessary liability towards New York’s cannabis industry leadership and a regressive assault on true social progress. His leadership will quickly tarnish any positively construed legacy that we are collectively vested in implementing in our state. We swiftly urge the consideration of different candidates for the incoming leadership roles and ask the Governor to consider other appointments recommended by the activists and community stakeholders who supported passage of the MRTA. Instead of a controversial figure with a questionable record of leadership, we call upon the Governor to select a BIPOC or culturally competent candidate who understands the full context of prohibition and the ensuing need for social equity as the program’s Executive Director.
Interim Executive Director of NYC NORML