The future of New York's $7 billion cannabis industry will be shaped by these 27 power players

  • Meet the lawmakers, regulators, executives, and investors shaping the future of New York’s cannabis industry.
  • New York legalized cannabis on March 31 and sales are expected to start in 2022.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

New York legalized cannabis for adults over the age of 21 in March, setting off a gold rush for companies looking to take advantage of the potentially $7 billion market in the US’s financial capital.

Right now, there are only ten cannabis licenses in the state’s medical market, and the companies that own each license will look to quickly transition from New York’s relatively limited medical market to the recreational market.

Legalization provides opportunities beyond selling cannabis. Marketing firms, recruiters, tech startups, and others will all have a hand in shaping the future of New York cannabis. 

Beyond the economic opportunities, New York could not have legalized cannabis without the work of activists, advocates, and lawmakers like Sen. Liz Krueger and State Assembly Leader Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes. Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA) into law on March 31.

New York probably won’t get legalization perfect on the first swing. But however the finer details of the legislation shake out — and however the industry responds — you can bet these 27 people will have a strong role in shaping its future:

New York State Senator Liz Krueger

Krueger introduced the MRTA in 2013 and has had a big hand in pushing for legalization since then. Krueger is the senate sponsor of the MRTA, which was signed into law in late March.

According to Justin Flagg, a spokesperson for Krueger, she will have no formal role in cannabis regulations — as that will be left to the Office of Cannabis Management. However, Flagg added that the senator “will certainly be watching to ensure that the goals of the law play out as intended, particularly the equity aspects.”

Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes, majority leader of the New York State Assembly

Peoples-Stokes is majority leader of the New York State Assembly and the Assembly sponsor of the bill. Since 2013, Peoples-Stokes has pushed for legalization in New York.

Since New York’s cannabis bill was signed into law, Peoples-Stokes has provided recommendations for who should serve on the two bodies that will oversee cannabis regulation, the Office of Cannabis Management and Cannabis Control Board, according to Leah M. Halton-Pope, senior advisor to Peoples-Stokes.

“Implementation is the most important part now and she wants to make sure this is done right,”  Halton-Pope told Insider. “As such she’ll stay pretty hands on as much as possible until people are in the right seats.”

Donna Lupardo, New York State Assembly member and chair of the Assembly Committee on Agriculture

Lupardo, as chair of the Assembly Committee on Agriculture, played an instrumental part in legalization efforts over the past few years.

Lupardo championed New York’s hemp program, passing multiple bills to stand up hemp farming since 2014.

She was a co-sponsor of the Compassionate Care Act, which created New York’s Medical Cannabis program in 2016. She was also one of the co-sponsors of the MRTA.

“I will be closely watching the roll-out of the adult-use program, making sure that all new and existing partners in the cannabis supply chain benefit from this expansion,” Lupardo told Insider in an email. 

Lupardo added that she will work with the future Office of Cannabis Management, which will oversee New York’s adult-use, medical and cannabinoid hemp programs, to raise questions and concerns as adult-use rolls out. She said she will also work with small farmers to ensure that “a diverse group of farmers are represented in licensing decisions.” 

Jeremy Cooney, co-chair of the New York State Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic & Asian Legislative Caucus (BPHA) Marijuana Task Force

Cooney is co-chair of the Marijuana Task Force for the Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic, and Asian Caucus and serves alongside Peoples-Stokes in this role. He was also a vocal cosponsor of the Senate version of the MRTA. 

Cooney worked with lawmakers and advocates to build support for the MRTA, according to Matthew Moll, his chief of staff. A prime focus of the senator’s efforts was around social equity and justice, said Moll. 

Moving forward, Cooney will continue to focus on social equity implementation of cannabis legalization, according to Moll. His efforts so far include hosting events aimed at recruiting minority and women-owned entrepreneurs, speaking on panels about legalization, and meeting with community leaders to address social equity. 

Axel Bernabe, assistant counsel to NY Governor Andrew Cuomo

Bernabe has had a large hand in shaping New York’s cannabis regulations.

Bernabe directed and supervised the expansion of New York’s medical program and oversaw the launch of the state’s hemp program. He first began working on cannabis regulation in New York in 2015, according to a spokesperson for the governor’s office.

“He was the chief architect and negotiator for the administration’s 2019 cannabinoid hemp law and regulations, as well as the recently enacted proposal to legalize cannabis for adult-use and create the Office of Cannabis Management (OCM) to centralize oversight of all cannabis-related activities,” the spokesperson continued.

“No staffing decisions have been made yet, but both [Bernabe and Birenbaum] will have a hand in shaping the regulatory structure and working with OCM and the Cannabis Control and Advisory Boards,” they continued.

Norman Birenbaum, director of cannabis programs for New York

Birenbaum joined Cuomo’s administration in December 2019 to oversee the state’s hemp and medical programs and to implement an adult-use program.

A spokesperson for the governor’s office told Insider that one of Birenbaum’s key focuses has been to ensure that adult-use in New York would reflect “emerging industry trends, regulatory best practices from other jurisdictions, and the ability to adapt to the changing federal and regional landscape.” 

“No staffing decisions have been made yet, but both [Bernabe and Birenbaum] will have a hand in shaping the regulatory structure and working with OCM and the Cannabis Control and Advisory Boards,” they continued.

 

Allan Gandelman, president of the New York Cannabis Growers and Processors Association

Gandelman is president of the New York Cannabis Growers & Processors Association, which represents around 100 small to medium-sized hemp farmers.

Gandelman was an organic vegetable farmer before he transitioned to hemp farming when he acquired a license to grow and process CBD. Gandelman says he and his association have helped shape hemp-related legislation in the state.

The association pushed to ensure that small farmers would have access to licenses in New York’s adult-use cannabis market. According to Gandelman, the association provided feedback to lawmakers and fought for language to ensure that “distressed farmers” would be included as social equity applicants under the new law. New York’s new cannabis law has a goal of 50% of licenses going to social equity applicants. 

Gandelman says that he also fought against tax rates and the structure of the potency tax, which will tax cannabis by THC potency. 

“While we weren’t able to eliminate the potency tax we did get it reduced by 40%,” Gandelman told Insider.”I personally spent a lot of time on that.” 

Gandelman says that he and the association communicate frequently with regulators and lawmakers and that he expects this to continue now that the law is passed and more regulations are expected to roll out. He added that the association has also nominated people that it would like to see on the regulatory bodies that will oversee the program.

Ngiste Abebe, president of the New York Medical Cannabis Industry Association (NYMCIA)

Abebe, president of the New York Medical Cannabis Industry Association (NYCIA), had a large hand in shaping legalization in New York. NYMCIA represents many of the 10 companies that operate in the state’s medical market including giants like Curaleaf and Green Thumb Industries.

Abebe and the association pushed to pass cannabis legalization in New York and ensure that the bill would include provisions to expand and upgrade the state’s medical program, according to Liz Benjamin, a spokesperson for the organization. 

The NYMCIA also commissioned studies that provided analysis of the economic benefits of an adult-use market to policy makers, Benjamin added. These studies highlighted the benefits of allowing medical operators to participate and stand up the recreational market.

Benjamin said the association is now focused on making sure the improvements to the state’s medical program — which are expected to roll out faster than adult-use sales — “are implemented as quickly and efficiently as possible.” Upholding the social equity provisions outlined in the law will also be a focus, she said.

Melissa Moore, New York State director of the Drug Policy Alliance

Melissa Moore, New York State director of the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), worked extensively with the sponsors of the MRTA to focus on cannabis reform in New York. 

The DPA has pushed to end cannabis-related arrests and worked to assemble the Start SMART NY (Sensible Marijuana Access through Regulated Trade) coalition, which pushed to establish an adult-use cannabis program that focused on racial justice, social equity, and community reinvestment.

Moore and her predecessor Kassandra Frederique have pushed for legalization for a long time and coordinated with civil rights groups, criminal justice reform advocates, labor unions, and other organizations for years. The organization worked with lawmakers to ensure that legalization would include automatic expungement of cannabis-related criminal records, among other details that would address the detrimental effects from the war on drugs.

Moving forward, Moore and the DPA will monitor the legalization rollout to ensure that the social equity and community reinvestment provisions are carried out, according to Matt Sutton, a DPA spokesperson.

Troy Smit, deputy director of Empire State NORML

Smit is a harm reduction and drug policy activist and deputy director of the New York chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

Empire State NORML was one of the main advocacy organizations that pushed for home cultivation, on-site consumption lounges, and robust protections against discrimination for consumers, according to Smit. The organization also advocated to make flower products available for medical patients, for automatic expungement of criminal records, and for funding of social justice initiatives through cannabis legalization.

Smit credits a big part of New York’s legalization effort to the former legislative director, Doug Greene, who served the organization for over a decade and died in 2019. 

Empire State NORML will keep pushing to ensure that consumers have access to high-quality, safe, and affordable marijuana, Smit said.

“Between fighting opt-out laws, advocating for consumer-centric regulations, and working to expand expungement statutes, the fight for consumer and patients rights is just getting started for us,” Smit told Insider.

Gia Morón, president of Women Grow

Morón’s organization is focused on female leaders in the cannabis industry. She’s also the founder of GVM Communications, a public relations firm in New York. 

Morón has worked closely with activists and organizations to push for legalization in New York over the past few years. She says that she and Cristina Buccula, a cannabis attorney, had a hand in reviewing the language proposed in Cuomo’s legalization bill and worked to highlight the distinctions between that bill and the New York State Legislature-backed bill, especially in regards to social equity provisions and community reinvestment.

Women Grow and Morón have hosted cannabis-focused events to spread awareness of the business opportunities that would come with legalization, like The Business of Cannabis Summit and New York State Women in Cannabis Day.

“As someone who was born and raised in this state, these initiatives were important to me,” Morón told Insider. “This is more than business, but a personal responsibility I felt is owed to my community.”

Women Grow is planning education initiatives around cannabis that will be rolled out in the coming months, according to Morón, who says the initiatives will focus on safe consumption methods, home-grow, state regulations, and starting a business.

Morón is also on the board for Minorities for Medical Marijuana, Advisory Board for the Cannabis World Congress Business Expo (CWCBE) and a member of the Start-SMART Coalition.

Mattio Communications CEO Rosie Mattio

Mattio built her public relations, marketing, and investor-relations firm from a one-woman shop in Seattle to a midtown New York City office with over 38 employees. Among her 55 clients are big New York City cannabis firms like Ayr Wellness and Ascend Wellness.

Mattio said that 20 of her employees joined the firm in the past year during the run-up to New York legalization.

“The opportunity here is so huge,” Mattio said. “It’s a massive addressable market in one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world. They can educate millions of new consumers about cannabis.” 

 

JW Asset Management President Jason Wild

As the president of the $2.2 billion New York City-based hedge fund JW Asset Management, Wild made some early bets on cannabis that have paid off handsomely for the firm.

The firm’s flagship fund returned 146% last year, buoyed by bets on both plant-touching and ancillary companies in the US cannabis industry, like GrowGeneration, Trulieve, and TerrAscend, as Insider reported.

“I’m as bullish as ever on the US cannabis operators,” Wild told Insider in a March interview. “US cannabis is still in the bottom of the first inning.”

Wild has also taken over from Jason Ackerman as the executive chairman at TerrAscend, a cannabis company with operations in New Jersey and other states.

As an investor and board member, Wild is leading the company as it searches for a permanent replacement.

Navy Capital founder and CEO Sean Stiefel

Stiefel had a good 2020: his fund surged 70% by the end of the year, buoyed by investments in Green Thumb Industries, Trulieve, Curaleaf, and Ayr Wellness, according to financials Stiefel shared with Insider.

Stiefel started the fund — which invests in both public and private cannabis companies — in 2017. Since then, the fund has returned approximately 350% net of fees.

Navy has also invested in New York license holders PharmaCann and Ascend.

“We are incredibly excited about the New York City market as it becomes the City on the Hill for normalization that the world can point to and see the tangible benefits to society and no longer consider American cannabis just the great West Coast Cannabis Experiment,” Stiefel said in an email. 

Merida Capital Partners managing partner Mitch Baruchowitz

New York City investment firm Merida Capital Partners, led by Mitch Baruchowitz, is one of the longest-tenured investors in the New York cannabis industry. 

Baruchowitz is among the most well-connected cannabis investors in NYC, and he’s a frequent speaker at cannabis industry events.

He’s led several exits in New York so far, including selling Valley Agriceuticals to cannabis multistate operator Cresco Labs in 2019. The firm recently crossed $500 million in assets under management, Baruchowitz said.

“As New Yorkers who have spent the past seven years since New York launched its medical program building one of the largest investment ecosystems in the world, we are excited to finally bring our experience home to build a comprehensive platform to what should be the second-largest market in the US,” Baruchowitz told Insider in an email.

Curaleaf CEO Joseph Bayern and Executive Chairman Boris Jordan

New York City-based Curaleaf is the largest US cannabis company by market capitalization, and it’s investing heavily in its home state. 

Bayern, who took over from Joseph Lusardi as CEO in January, and Boris Jordan, the firm’s founder and executive chairman, have made dominating the New York market a centerpiece of their global ambitions.

“The legalization of adult-use is a significant milestone for the cannabis industry as New York has the potential to be one of the most vibrant cannabis markets in the United States,” Bayern told Insider in an email. 

“I am thrilled to see that the NY bill, including its specific tax proposals, testing regulations, and vertical integration guidelines, has provisions that support social equity and economic opportunity aimed at creating a fair, safe, and well-regulated market.” 

 

Ascend Wellness Holdings CEO Abner Kurtin

Ascend Wellness Holdings is one of ten companies that owns a license to cultivate and sell marijuana in New York state.

Kurtin led the $73 million acquisition of a majority stake of MedMen’s New York assets in February. 

The company is in a quiet period in advance of its coming IPO on the Canadian Securities Exchange and Kurtin declined to comment. 

Columbia Care CEO Nicholas Vita

Vita led New York City-based Columbia Care company through the cannabis industry downturn of 2019 and the pandemic, posting record fourth-quarter earnings.

The company has become a favorite of many Wall Street analysts, who say the stock could pop more than 200%. That’s because Columbia Care already has an impressive footprint in New York’s medical market and owns prime retail locations in downtown Brooklyn, among other neighborhoods.

“As the industry grows on a national level, I’m excited to work with the Columbia Care team to build universal brands and innovative products that consumers can look to and trust for their wellness needs,” Vita said in a statement. “I look forward to leveraging my experience in building experiential lifestyle brands through compelling communication, product innovation, digital transformation, and omnichannel marketing to contribute to the company’s and industry’s growth.”

 

Green Thumb Industries CEO Ben Kovler

As CEO of Chicago-based cannabis company Green Thumb, Kovler is preparing to dominate New York cannabis retail.

Kovler said in a recent interview with Insider that although New York is a relatively small part of Green Thumb’s portfolio today, he’s expecting that to change, 

The company is planning a “massive capital expenditure project” ahead of New York’s recreational market opening next year, he said.

In February, Green Thumb raised $100 million from a single institutional investor. The investor remains anonymous. 

“The New York adult-use market has the potential to become one of the largest in the country and is expected to become a $5 billion industry, if not bigger,” Kovler told Insider in an email.

“But the new legislation doesn’t only impact the economy. More notably, it recognizes the importance of social equity, and we are looking forward to seeing the state execute on social equity licensing. The New York legislation should serve as the blueprint for the rest of the country.”

Etain Health COO Hillary Peckham

Etain Health, led by Amy Peckham, Hillary Peckham, and Keeley Peckham, is one of the only private cannabis companies in New York. 

It’s also the only women-owned New York cannabis company, and it currently operates a medical dispensary in Midtown Manhattan. 

As COO, Hillary Peckham told Insider in an interview in February that she is regularly approached by out-of-state companies about deals, but that they’ll be picky about choosing a potential acquirer if they go that route. 

“Etain is excited and optimistic about the potential of fully legalized cannabis for New Yorkers,” Peckham said in an email. “As the first and only women-owned licensee in the State, we are especially excited about the aggressive goals for a diverse and inclusive cannabis industry.”

Ayr Wellness CEO Jon Sandelman and COO Jennifer Drake

New York City-based Ayr Wellness has flown under the radar compared to some of its competitors, but the firm has recently made a slew of acquisitions in newly legal states in the Northeast, and it’s eyeing its home market, Drake told Insider in a February interview.

Led by Wall Street veteran Jon Sandelman, the company has posted consistently strong earnings and has earned praise from analysts.

The firm most recently agreed to acquire the Garden State Dispensary in New Jersey in a $101 million deal.

Cresco Labs CEO Charlie Bachtell

Cresco Labs entered the New York market in 2019 through the acquisition of Valley Agriceuticals. 

Bachtell’s Chicago-based company has a strong footprint in nine states, including Illinois, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and New York.

Bachtell is also heavily involved in cannabis legislation on Capitol Hill as the chairman of the National Cannabis Roundtable, an industry trade group. 

“The legalization of adult-use cannabis in New York represents a massive opportunity, as we continue the steady march towards acceptance and legalization of cannabis nationwide. Not only is it the 4th most populous state, it is also one of the financial and cultural hubs of America,” Bachtell said in an email.

“The initial legislation framework put forward by the state looks like an intelligent way to balance the needs of the various stakeholders and help the communities that have been most impacted by cannabis.”  

 

Acreage Holdings CEO Peter Caldini and COO Robert Daino

Caldini took over the top job at Acreage in December in preparation for the New York City-based cannabis company to transition its stores in its home state to recreational cannabis.

Caldini, along with Acreage COO Robert Daino, will steer the firm through the transition, a spokesperson for Acreage told Insider.

Acreage has deep-pocketed backers. Canadian cannabis company Canopy Growth has an option to purchase Acreage whenever that’s federally permissible — which could come as soon as this year, according to Canopy Growth CEO David Klein.

“We are committed to taking more strides to destigmatize public perception, partnering alongside social equity entrants and positively contributing to the economic vitality of the Great State of New York,” Robert Daino said in an email. “It is an exciting time for cannabis in New York.”

 

PharmaCann CEO Brett Novey

Illinois-based PharmaCann was one of the first companies to purchase a lucrative cannabis license in New York.

PharmaCann CEO Brett Novey’s next task will be to transition that license from the medical to recreational market, as New York’s cannabis industry begins to open next year.

“As the proud holder of the first marijuana license ever issued in the Empire State, we look forward to helping the state build a diverse, robust adult-use cannabis ecosystem that provides good-paying career opportunities while still valuing the safety, security, and consumer protections that New Yorkers have come to expect from its roster of existing cannabis operators,” Novey said in an emailed statement. 

 

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