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When New York state legalized adult-use cannabis in 2021, it wasn’t just the end of almost 100 years of prohibition, it was the beginning of a new paradigm, with social equity, environmental health, and economic fairness at the heart of the law. In fact, New York’s law is arguably the most forward-thinking cannabis legal framework in the United States. This Thursday it was announced that New Yorkers with previous cannabis convictions will be first in line for licenses

This progress is in part the result of tireless work by NY Small Farma Ltd., a rural nonprofit that focuses on education. Founded in 2018 by small farmer and attorney Andi Novick, the 501(c)(3) volunteer organization’s mission is to foster a socially just, environmentally regenerative, and economically inclusive cannabis community. 

To achieve this goal, NY Small Farma organized or attended over 60 meetings with lawmakers, staff, and policymakers statewide. While not glamorous work, it did prove worthwhile. 

“Initially they didn’t know what we were talking about, but through our relentless lobbying, they began to understand that there are environmental and health impacts of large-scale indoor cannabis operations,” says Donna Burns, who was president of NY Small Farma in 2021 when the law passed. The team slowly but surely connected the dots between environmental degradation and harm to marginalized communities and directly impacted lawmakers’ willingness to pass comprehensive legislation. 

In the end, New York’s regulatory board was required to adopt cultivation standards guided by the principles and practices of sustainable farming. The law now requires would-be licensees “to increase climate resiliency and minimize or eliminate adverse environmental impacts, including water and energy usage, carbon emissions, waste, pollutants, harmful chemicals and single use plastics.” This was a huge victory for New York Small Farma. 

“This amazing plant should be used for more than just lining the pockets of corporations. It should be a vehicle for healing, community wellbeing and change,” emphasizes Ms. Novick. 

Through collaborative efforts with the Drug Policy Alliance’s Start Smart Coalition, the law now sets a target of giving 50% of licenses to social equity applicants, including people disproportionately affected by the War on Drugs.  

There is a clear focus on microbusinesses and social equity applicants including minorities, veterans, women and even those who have historically been underrepresented in farming. The law also allows consumers to cultivate cannabis at home, a provision that was strongly opposed by then-governor Andrew Cuomo.

Burns emphasizes the organization’s vision: “Consciously-grown, community-based cannabis can help heal the earth, uplift our communities and usher in a new economic model of fairness and inclusivity for all in agriculture and our culture at large. We must start with the literal ground – healthy, nutrient-rich soil – to nurture the plant and the people who it touches.” 

In addition to successful lobbying to ensure personal cultivation rights and opportunities for micro-business, the organization continues to engage in educational and advocacy meetings with officials, circulate scientific and policy information, and serve as a hub of information about cannabis cultivation. They host an online education series – Cannabis, Consciousness and the Environment – that unites experts for conversations about the historical, ethnobotanical, and cultural aspects of cannabis and how it fits into today’s renewed interest in exploring sidelined substances for personal health and awareness. 

In the four years since its inception, New York Small Farma has grown to include a robust group of volunteers, advisors, and board members who share the vision of an economy built on care and respect rather than extraction and exploitation, and supporting micro, craft, and artisanal production grounded in shared opportunity and success, especially for those who have been historically marginalized. 

It was no minor task for the small team to go up against large established MSOs and other moneyed interests to re-envision the state’s cannabis market as one grounded in social and environmental equity. In the end, the lobbying efforts and contributions of policies that made it into the law, NY Small Farma played a significant role in shaping the current legal landscape of New York cannabis and potentially providing a progressive model for other states. 

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