After serving roughly two and a half years as the cannabis program supervisor in Portland, Ore.’s Office of Community & Civic Life, Dasheeda Dawson, who has more than a decade of development, strategic management and brand marketing experience, has returned to her home state—and home city—to serve as the director of Cannabis NYC, New York City’s initiative aimed at supporting the burgeoning adult-use cannabis industry.
Housed within the NYC Department of Small Business Services (SBS), Cannabis NYC will work to support the creation of jobs, small businesses and economic opportunity through strategic outreach, public engagement, business services and advocacy efforts—all while trying to address the harms of the war on drugs.
Dawson admits that she has her work cut out for her in her new role, which will not only support cannabis businesses, but also consumers who are transitioning from the illicit, or legacy, market to the legal one.
“When we talk about transitioning [from] legacy to legal, I think sometimes people automatically go to the operators, the growers and the sellers, and they are important, but for every one grower or one seller, there [are] anywhere from 25 to 100 consumers,” Dawson says. “So, when we talk about legacy to legal, we’re also talking about getting those consumers to transition. That is the business case we need to solve for, and I don’t think any other regulatory market has ever attempted to do so. New York City, to me, with the amount of consumers we feel we have here in the unregulated market, it’s imperative that we do that to be a successful industry.”
Here, Dawson shares more about the transition to her new role and her predictions for New York’s forthcoming adult-use market.
Melissa Schiller: What attracted you to New York’s cannabis market?
Dasheeda Dawson: I’m from Brooklyn, N.Y., and my cannabis journey started here, when I could not qualify for the medical cannabis program. I was a senior executive and suffering from various ailments and autoimmune issues, and I could not qualify. So, I moved out west nearly seven years ago. In doing so, I entered the industry, and of course, I fell in love with Oregon, in particular Portland, in terms of the accessibility and the sensibility of the [cannabis] program that existed.
Coming back home is really a full-circle moment. I don’t think we thought New York was going to legalize as quickly as it did, but I think that having two and a half years in Portland was the training wheels I needed. I’d never done a stint as a government official before. [I] had come from the private sector, being a government contractor in a lot of different states, including New York, but I’d never worked for the government in this way. It’s really been a pleasure and bittersweet to leave my Portland team. But in some ways, it’s really prepared me for the exact role that I’m meant for, being a Brooklyn native and a patient refugee coming back to help lead Cannabis NYC.
MS: How does New York’s industry compare to Portland’s?
DD: Government, in general, has a lot of similarities. There’s obviously city council and [a process for] how decisions get made and policies that impact consumers. One thing I will say, is a big difference is I was really shocked when I was in Portland, at the canna-phobia that still exists, even in a mature market. On the surface, while Portland has a more mature market, a number of legacy consumers—consumers who are shopping the unregulated market—[exist] in New York City. It’s so overwhelming, so it definitely feels more empowering as a result. I think that is the biggest difference in terms of the actual consumer market: there are probably more people in New York City who are more willing to publicly stand up for consumer rights and protections. I think in Portland, it was something that was really hard to pull out of the community.
We hosted our first Cannabis Empowerment Day in Portland, and it’s something I’m hoping to do in a coalition of sister cities, including New York City, next year, in a larger way. But I think New York City being a part of Cannabis Empowerment will positively impact a place like Portland, where the government just started acknowledging the benefit of the industry to the government itself. And Cannabis NYC represents the mayor and SBS acknowledging before the industry’s even open that we need to prioritize it—that’s the biggest difference. I don’t think Portland initially prioritized cannabis and [it] now is. New York is out of the gate prioritizing it.
MS: And it seems like New York has also been prioritizing social equity initiatives.
DD: I think it has to. It’s a state that’s arrested more people than any other state for cannabis possession, and New York City was the arrest capital for that. So, we have some government accountability. I think the administration in the city completely understands, and with the way the [Marihuana Regulation and Taxation Act] (MRTA) is written, I think social equity is baked into cannabis and Cannabis NYC.
MS: What are your plans and goals in your new role?
DD: In the short term, I’m onboarding employees because it’s a new job in city government. There are a lot of agencies and departments, so we’ll be working on inter-department tasks to create the best Cannabis NYC that we can. So, I’ll definitely be looking at optimizing services, particularly within SBS.
I talk a lot about the importance of SBS being the location of Cannabis NYC in the same way that the cannabis program was within the Office of Community & Civic Life [in Portland]. These are agencies that are already providing services to the community, and the goal is to make sure we are optimizing business services, developing what already exists within SBS, optimizing it, and curating it specifically for cannabis entrepreneurs, and not just those that are licensed, but also those that want to be a part of the ancillary ecosystem that will support it.
So, that’s what I’m working on right now in a large way because there are so many services that are being provided to entrepreneurs in the space, and we want to make sure that we’re ready for those who want to participate in the cannabis industry.
In the long term, however, I think we have a much broader vision, and it really is on us to start it correctly. I think the MRTA really allows us to lean into this, but we really want to be a No. 1 global hub—seen [in] New York City as the hub of cannabis, if you will—with real excellence in the industry and education and equity across business, science, and culture. And we think that all of those things are going to be really important in driving the ecosystem and the success of the entrepreneurs we help at SBS.
I think we’ll also want to make sure that we create a market that is very much supportive of the consumer because this is a place that people believe has the largest amount of cannabis consumers in the country—some people believe the world. We want to make sure that population feels comfortable transitioning into the legal market to shop.
MS: What are your overall predictions for New York’s adult-use market, as far as market rollout, evolving regulations, product trends, consumer trends, etc.?
DD: That’s a loaded question, and it could take multiple interviews to go over how massive and important New York as a state market will be. Within New York City, we’ve got to work on facilitation of the legacy, unregulated market into the legal market and a coexistence. I think we’ve long been in a situation where the government rule was eradication and squashing with the enforcement, and the MRTA and the spirit of which and the time of which it was passed is actually trying to undo that harm. In order to undo it, we need to facilitate pathways and create frameworks to help people transition.
We anticipate that New York City will amass more than $1 billion in sales relatively quickly, but at the same time, people estimate that the unregulated market will be $4 billion. So, we will have to deal with a period of time where there’s coexistence, and it’s peaceful, where the war on drugs has not been, especially in communities like the one I grew up in, in East New York. We’re going to be working on that peaceful transition, which is really going to be driven by the consumer.
At the end of the day, it was consumers primarily being arrested because cannabis possession was the primary arrest—almost 90%. And it’s consumers who are going to dictate whether the legal market is providing what they need. I think the mature markets have made the mistake of creating frameworks that are good for the government, that are good for business, but are not good for the community. So, we’ll work on creating a framework that is centered [on] community. And I think that’s centered on the mission of the administration and the social equity blueprint for New York City.
MS: What kind of challenges do you foresee as the market launches, and how can operators overcome these challenges?
DD: The biggest challenge in any market is the competency level of the decision makers related to cannabis, and that’s why education and science [are] going to be critical. Cannabis is inherently medicinal, and even though there’s a lot of consumer empowerment from the unregulated market, I know from my own experience that most people are still unaware of a lot of the science. I think a lot of people don’t understand that hemp is cannabis, too, and we have a program in New York that actually regulates them together which is, again, one of the first in the country to do that. In Oregon, hemp is regulated under a completely different system, the Department of Ag, and we didn’t have jurisdiction [in the hemp industry] when I was the czar in Portland. So, it was hard to have that conversation about ways those markets would cross over and are currently crossing over.
We don’t want to make the mistake of ignoring the cannabinoid market that’s right now driving a lot of the innovation. Cannabinoids are popping up—new ones—day in and day out, and they’re all over CBD and smoke shops around the city. Again, the competency thing is always going to be the determining factor of how quickly a market is going to be successful.
Right now, I would say we have high empowerment [and] high enthusiasm, and we need more education. So, that right now is going to be the biggest challenge. The good news, though, is we already have two schools, such as Medgar Evers, that have taken on the challenge out of the gate of trying to close the gap on education. They started already by offering the first degree program around cannabis, and it’s in a science [program]. What we’re going to do at Cannabis NYC is amplify as soon as possible some of these education programs because it not only helps create the workforce that we need in the industry, but two, it makes for a lot more competent consumers, as well as other decisionmakers, whether you’re a judge, whether you work for Child Protective Services, or whether you’re a health care professional. Those are the gaps right now at Cannabis NYC, and I think we’re focused on filling that with education.
MS: What kind of business support will Cannabis NYC provide to entrepreneurs in New York City’s market?
DD: We’re going to be leaning in very heavily on what SBS already has in place, and I think the brilliance of Cannabis NYC is that it’s actually in the Small Business Services department. That in and of itself means that we’ll tackle a lot of the initial challenges, like business planning, being able to get some of the fundamentals, whether it’s accounting or contract management, with wraparound services that are already provided through the Department of Business Services and SBS.
Out the gate, with the [Conditional Adult-Use Retail Dispensary] (CAURD) applications, for example, there was an opportunity for people to come in and work within the business center to put together the application. There was also a hotline and social media, and the ability to have conversations about whether or not someone [was] eligible. We can actually support the pipeline for the state’s application by making sure we’re sending as many eligible applicants through [as possible] and supporting them in getting their paperwork done.
We’re excited with the outcome and the touchpoints with the CAURD applications. We had over 1,000 individuals who maybe didn’t meet all the touchpoints, but we saw over 150 who were eligible and more than 30 who submitted applications.
So, at this point, we’ll continue building out with the Department of Business Services what they already provide. And again, it’s a wraparound, one-on-one for business planning, being able to take MBA-level courses in a fast-tracked kind of way. It’s also mentorship, of course. And we also have the benefit of other industry initiatives that have been launched at SBS to follow suit, whether it’s BE NYC, which is focused on Black entrepreneurs, or WE NYC, which focuses on women entrepreneurs. I think there [are] a lot of lessons, and I’m interested in meeting with those leads to make sure that we’re building Cannabis NYC with a lot of the same resources that are focused on cannabis.
Reinventing the wheel has been where the mistake has come from for a lot of jurisdictions. Many cities put their department of cannabis or their regulatory [body] into [the] finance [department], so it’s all about the revenue that’s being driven and not as much about the community impact and the services being provided. I don’t think I would have been able to consider Cannabis NYC if it was in the Department of Revenue or another area. I think this was the smartest decision to capitalize on what SBS already has. And again, Portland is similar—being in the Office of Community & Civic Life was very similar, providing services to many of the marginalized communities that cannabis programming is designed for. I feel fortunate that I’ve already had that experience to optimize a bureau’s existing resources, but of course, that was much smaller. Now, as part of being a much larger bureau, I’m looking forward to working with the commissioner and the leadership at SBS to find out what will be the successful framework for cannabis.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for style, length and clarity.