When New York state lawmakers legalized recreational pot last year, they were intent on including measures that would ensure those negatively impacted by the War on Drugs and members of underserved communities would have a path into the emerging legal cannabis industry. Under these so-called social equity provisions, half of all licenses for marijuana businesses are reserved for women, veterans, minorities, distressed farmers and “individuals who have lived in communities disproportionally impacted” by drug prohibition enforcement policies. In March, New York went a step farther when Governor Kathy Hochul announced that the first 100 licenses for adult-use cannabis retailers would go to those with past convictions for cannabis offenses.
For many cannabis policy reform activists, New York’s progress on social equity is a welcome change from the early days of legalization, which sometimes offered expungement for past convictions but otherwise left victims of the War on Drugs with little hope of getting a stake in the industry. But even with robust equity measures, individuals who have borne the brunt of the drug war, particularly members of Black and Brown communities, still face significant obstacles to gaining a toehold in the legal weed business.
Cannabis Retail Coming to New York
Coss Marte is one of the many entrepreneurs intent on obtaining one of New York’s first 100 licenses for recreational cannabis retailers. After spending six years in prison for selling weed, he meets the requirements set by Hochul and the New York Office of Cannabis Management. Growing up, he was introduced to marijuana at an early age.
Before long, he saw selling drugs as one of the few viable economic opportunities available to him. Well in advance of legalization, Marte got an early start supplying cannabis and other drugs to New Yorkers through the city’s underground industry. But after a brief period of meteoric success, the operation came crashing down when he was arrested and sentenced to seven years in prison.
“At 13, I started dealing and from there, it just started escalating,” he explains. “At 19, I was running one of the largest drug delivery services in New York City. I was generating about five million dollars in revenue, doing a delivery service. And I got knocked and everything ended at 23 years old.”
Taking Inspiration from Adversity
Now out of prison, he is well prepared for success in New York’s regulated cannabis industry. But his plans for the industry aren’t limited to finding a path to success for himself. If he is successful in gaining one of the coveted retail licenses, Marte’s plans include offering a path to employment in the cannabis industry for other formerly incarcerated members of the community. It’s a task he is well suited for. When Marte went to prison, it became quickly evident that it was time for reflection and some serious life changes. Finding a career for life after prison was one priority, but he also became aware of a health crisis that required more immediate attention.
“When I went in, doctors told me my cholesterol levels were through the roof, and if I didn’t start eating correctly or dieting, I could probably die of a heart attack,” he says. “So I basically started working out obsessively and I managed to lose over 70 pounds in six months.”
Encouraged by his success, Marte was soon helping others behind bars on their path to fitness. He started a workout program on the prison yard, helping more than 20 fellow inmates lose a combined total of more than 1,000 pounds. Ever the entrepreneur, Marte saw opportunity in the challenges he had overcome and he began making plans for a new enterprise. Once he was released, he started Conbody, a fitness method managed and run by former inmates. Marte founded Conbody with a mission to de-stigmatize the formerly incarcerated community, especially Black and Brown returning citizens, to ease their integration back into society, and work to change the systemic inequity of the criminal justice system.
With Marte’s leadership, Conbody has become a model for creating opportunities for the formerly incarcerated. He has worked with more than 100 formerly incarcerated individuals and is justifiably proud of the group’s 0% recidivism rate. To ensure continued success and be able to create new opportunities at Conbody, he has also had a hand in placing more than 50 trained professionals in positions in New York’s fitness industry. But he hasn’t stopped there. An entirely different project helps people re-entering society from the prison system find employment in the media industry.
“I’ve also started another nonprofit organization called Second Chance Studios, I’m a co-founder there,” he explains. “We’ve been able to hire six people coming out of the prison system. It’s an apprenticeship program. We teach them audio engineering and video production. Half of the graduates in the last graduating class got accepted to work at MTV.”
With the legalization of recreational marijuana in New York, Marte has set his sights on a new goal. He has now started Conbud, a company he hopes will obtain one of New York’s first licenses for cannabis retailers. And just like Conbody, his plans include creating opportunities for formerly incarcerated individuals.
“I want to hire people coming out of the system that have been affected by the War on Drugs,” he says.
Like many entrepreneurs trying to forge a path into the cannabis industry, Marte faces challenges raising capital to fund the endeavor and is seeking investors. But with two family members who have been successful in New York City’s bar and restaurant industry as partners, Conbud has already secured one potential retail location in the Bronx and is working on obtaining another in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Regulators hope to have retail sales up and running by the end of the year, so Marte has already begun preparing for the application period to open, with consultants, an accountant, and legal representation already hired and at work.
“I’m jumping on board,” Marte says, clearly eager to keep the process moving ahead. “I have all my paperwork ready, just to make things happen.”
“I’m one of a gazillion people in the state of New York that qualify under this license, so I want to do it right,” he adds. “And I want to make sure, you know, I give back to the people who have been most affected.”
Marte says that regulations limiting him to running three retail weed stores will impact how many jobs he can offer to the formerly incarcerated. But he knows the need is great and encourages cannabis businesses that talk the social equity game to step up and hire individuals who have spent time behind bars due to marijuana prohibition. With his contacts in the community, Marte says he has access to a stream of men and women who fit the bill and are waiting for the chance to put their hard-earned skills to work.
“I also sit on the board of Fortune Society, which is one of the largest criminal justice organizations in the city,” he explains. “They service over seven thousand people a year, coming out of the jail system, the prison system. So, I have great relationships there, where we can get people and individuals working in this space, in this industry.”