In 2011, Jennifer Tzar was a single mother, working as a photographer in New York City. On the surface, she looked glamorous and successful. She'd published photos in Rolling Stone, Men's Vogue, and Elle and photographed models and celebrities. But when her 17-year-old daughter got sick, the fragile facade she'd constructed began to crack.
"I finally had a career path in my life where I saved up a bunch of money … And I was just like, 'Oh my god, I'm successful," Tzar reminisced. "That last period lasted for a few months, and then I blew through all my money trying to fix my daughter."
She turned to selling cannabis to make ends meet. For a few months, it worked. But when a three-alarm fire broke out in her SoHo apartment building, authorities investigating the cause found 10 pounds of cannabis and thousands of dollars in Tzar's apartment. After a 6-month trial, Tzar was fortunate to dodge jail time, but a felony charge marred her record. She said she was effectively blacklisted from photography gigs at a time she was still contending with her daughter's illness.
A decade later, Tzar sees a new opportunity in an industry that once upended her life. Together with her business partner Tanya Hotton, she's applying for a conditional adult-use retail dispensary (CAURD) license under New York's Seeding Opportunity Initiative. Her conviction and years of experience owning bars in Hudson, New York, and Los Angeles, make her more than qualified, she said.
"With this CAURD application, again, I now have years of business experience. I have an arrest on my record. I'm applying as a woman — they're prioritizing women or people of color," Tzar said, during a Wednesday evening panel discussion in New York City organized by cannabis technology company Weedmaps and moderated by CEO Chris Beals. "I am super excited about it."
The window to apply for New York's first, coveted retail licenses opened on August 25. Regulators have reserved the first 150 licenses for individuals who meet a set of specific requirements that include having a cannabis conviction or a family member who does. Individuals who win those licenses will have the first crack at selling legal, regulated cannabis in New York's adult-use market by the end of 2022. They will receive support from a $200 million equity fund, and the Dormitory Authority of the State of New York (DASNY) will match conditional licensees with retail locations and assist with facility build-outs, Reuben McDaniel, DASNY president and CEO said on a Thursday press conference. Competition for those licenses is expected to be fierce.
"We're really thrilled to be able to open the market with them, by those people who've been impacted by the enforcement of cannabis prohibition. But this is not the only opportunity," Cannabis Control Board Chair Tremaine Wright told Cheddar News.
How to Apply for a NY Cannabis Retail License
Regulators have provided a very detailed set of instructions to help would-be cannabis entrepreneurs navigate the system.
STEP 1: Gather supporting documents
In order to qualify for a conditional adult-use retail dispensary (CAURD) license, applicants must be "justice involved" and have business ownership experience.
New York State defines "justice involved" as someone convicted of a marijuana-related offense in New York state prior to March 31, 2021 or someone who has a parent, spouse, child, dependent, or legal guardian who was convicted of a marijuana-related offense in that timeframe. An individual still qualifies as "justice involved" if a cannabis-related arrest ultimately led to a conviction that was not related to a drug offense.
In order to prove qualifying business experience, an individual must have owned at least 10 percent of a business that was profitable for at least two years during the time that individual was an owner.
The documents needed to prove evidence of a past conviction, of a relationship with a convicted individual, of the location an applicant lived at the time of a conviction, and of relevant business experience are listed on the New York Office of Cannabis Management's (OCM) website. If an applicant needs to request any documents from the New York State Department of State including a certificate of incorporation, a certificate of limited partnership, articles of organizations, a charter, by-laws, or a partnership agreement, applicants should request "expedited handling services" to ensure timely delivery, according to OCM's website.
STEP 2: Assemble a business plan
After determining eligibility, applicants must provide a solid business plan.
"I don't think it needs to be War and Peace. I think it needs to be a comprehensive plan as to what you're planning on doing and how you want to run your business," said attorney Steve Malito, a partner at Davidoff Hutcher & Citron, where he chairs the Cannabis Department and +the New York State Government Relations Group.
According to OCM, the business plan should describe how the dispensary business will be organized and operated, including detailed financial disclosures and a breakdown of the ownership structure.
Ownership structure is particularly important because of the rigorous applicant requirements. If there is only one justice-involved owner, that person must also have qualifying business experience and own at least 51 percent of the dispensary. If there are multiple justice-involved owners, one of them must have qualifying business experience and own at least 30 percent of the dispensary.
In an instructional video describing the application in detail, OCM Chief Equity Officer Damian Fagon urged applicants to identify "true parties of interest" or any individual or business that has a financial stake in the planned business. Disclosure of parties of interest requires separate forms and is intended to avoid monopolies in the New York cannabis industry.
STEP 3: Apply ASAP
The window for applications closes on September 26. Applications will be considered on a region-by-region basis, according to regulators, so it pays to apply early.
"If they don't have it on day one, please do not worry, you can still apply," Wright said.
The first step in filling out the application entails creating an account on businessexpress.ny.gov. In a video describing the application, Fagon recommends saving the application as often as possible and providing detailed descriptions when prompted. In order to submit the application, applicants must also pay a $2,000 nonrefundable application and license fee. Questions about the application process can be directed to (888) 626-5151 or email@example.com.
Applicants will also be asked to rank the top five regions in which they would like to operate. OCM announced on Wednesday that licenses would be divvied out based on region. The largest number of licenses will be available in Manhattan, followed by Long Island, Brooklyn, mid-Hudson, and Queens.
OCM expects an overwhelming response, but Wright said she expects the website to hold up.
"I do expect us to be swamped as soon as this opens up, however, we have been working diligently with the IT informational services team here in New York State, and they have assured us that the tests have been run, we are ready to go. And we really do believe that people will have a seamless experience submitting their applications to us," Wright said.
The one-month application window is something that has advocates concerned. Carlene Pinto, the founder and CEO of NYC Action Lab and co-founder of Latinas Grow, said there are still many New Yorkers who don't know about the new program and what cannabis coming to the state might mean for them. Those left out of the conversation, she said, are often those from communities disproportionately impacted by cannabis criminalization.
"We need an intergenerational conversation that's culturally competent, where we can have a conversation around myth-busting. This is an incredible plant, and our community has often been a community where that plant has been used as a tool of both exploitation and criminalization," Pinto said during Weedmaps' panel discussion.
She pointed out that information could be translated into more languages to target New York's sizeable immigrant population. Pinto also urged regulators to find ways to communicate with New Yorkers who are "behind in the digital divide," not only as potential cannabis business owners but also as neighbors to cannabis businesses and potential customers.
"We have to figure out how all of this information trickles down, especially if the application window is only 30 days," she said.
STEP 4: Don't get discouraged
In case of an error, applicants have 30 days to request an amendment after submitting an application. OCM may also request an applicant add detail or documentation to an application.
Applicants who are successful move onto phase two of the application process in which they will be required to detail actions taken in the months leading up to store opening, and may be asked to submit more documents.
Wright urged applicants not to get discouraged if they are not successful in applying for a CAURD license. There are only 150 of these special, priority licenses available, but there will be plenty of other opportunities and entry points for licensees to get in on the industry in the future.
"We really do want people to realize that if they're not prepared and they are unable to step forward at this moment that there still remain opportunities for them to participate in the adult-use market here in New York State," Wright said.
Activist and lawyer Jason Starr agreed during the Weedmaps panel discussion.
"Once it's fully realized, once we're five years in, let's not focus too much on 150 licensed dispensaries and CAURD when we're talking about 1,500 to 2,000 dispensaries across the state," he said.
As for Tzar, she is hopeful she will be successful in winning one of those first 150 CAURD licenses. She already has a vision of what her dispensary might look like.
Called Dagmar, the shop Tzar envisions will be for and by women, supported by female owners, farmers, and investors. Tzar also imagines branching into cannabis-adjacent products like luggage and lingerie.
"Something super classy, super classic, totally for women. Luxury. And I don't see that in the market," she said. "If I'm going to make my cannabis habit part of my outer existence, I want accoutrements that I would imagine in my own imagination."
At 55 years old, Tzar said she still doesn't have healthcare, own property, or have a retirement plan. If she wins a license and manages to open and operate a successful dispensary in New York's market, Tzar said she'll feel like she finally made it after years of struggle.
"It would mean that … if I died tomorrow, my daughter will be cared for," she said. "I have two younger sisters, just to know that people around me are cared for. I can care for myself as I get older. And I can invest, and I can live like an adult."