Gov. Kathy Hochul, seen here visiting a Javits Center COVID vaccination site in February 2021, proposed a $200 million social equity fund in her proposed 2022 budget. Credit: New York National Guard

Eric Spencer was a drug dealer.

He hopes to be one again someday.

Spencer spent 13 years in the pen for drug conspiracy charges. If New York State continues to make advances in the cannabis market as they have been, he can return to the business he knows best – in a lot less time.

He’s not bragging. But he wants back in.

“I don’t even smoke,” he said. “I just gotta get back in the game. There’s too much money being made.”

Spencer is a social equity candidate and partner in Mello Tymes Inc., a New York dispensary applicant. The support for the cannabis industry that is coming from Gov. Kathy Hochul’s desk has Spencer eager to see what’s next.

On Feb. 23, Hochul signed a bill allowing hemp farmers in the state to move their operations to focus on THC, just a week after it hit her desk. The approval comes on the heels of January’s budget proposal, which includes $200 million in funds from the state and private parties to provide start-up assistance for social equity applicants.

“I think New York really has a chance to move the needle in the right direction with this fund,” he said. 

The public-private fund will provide aid to eligible social equity applicants. Funds will be drawn from licensing fee revenue and will bring in support from private investors.

The fund assists applicants with initial costs and operating expenses. The Dormitory Authority of the State of New York is included in the proposal, providing assistance in searching for retail space and renovations, including furniture and equipment, necessary to open a new dispensary.

“The New York Social Equity Cannabis Investment Fund will be a unique and important catalyst, both to efficiently launch a new industry in New York and also to counter historical economic inequities that have disproportionately and clearly impacted minority communities,” said Tremaine Wright, Chair of the New York State Cannabis Control Board via a press release. “Governor Hochul’s support for this approach will help ensure the fund will achieve these goals.” 

The details Spencer has heard include a large number of social equity applications that are to be accepted:150.

“They’re going to find the location, do the build out, make sure you have employees, help with product,” said Spencer. “Really help with everything. They really want the social equity dispensaries to stand up and have a chance to succeed.”

The New York legislature is required by law to have budget finalization by April 1. It is still early in the process and full details on how the funding would work are unclear.

“New York will be one of the first states to have anything like this fund,” said Cristina Buccola, a coalition member of Start SMART NY and a cannabis attorney/law professor. “We don’t know if it will be one private party [contributing to the fund] or a gaggle of private parties involved, but the first money is going to retail and retail build-out.

“I think we can expect to see this [pass]. I don’t think this would get pushed down. There is a lot of interest and momentum behind this and I don’t expect that this would fall out.”

Spencer envisions a modern-styled dispensary for Mello Tymes, but after what he describes as a lengthy application process, he just wants a license to distribute cannabis – legally. Buccola thinks the state’s push forward will help potential licensees like Spencer have an easier go at setting up shop.

“(Long) applications cost a lot of money and take a lot of time and people who have been doing it for a long time,” said Buccola. “I hope the process is not overly complicated and does not look like what we have seen in other states. … and not another barrier to entry.”

No stranger to the cannabis business, Spencer still felt excitement with his first visit to a dispensary. He wants to make sure he gets to provide that same experience when he gets his foot in the door.

“The first time I went into a dispensary, I was blown,” laughed Spencer. “I still haven’t recovered from that. … I think there was a woman in there with a stroller and a baby. It’s a viable business now and I want to be in that game.

“My point is this is nothing new for (social equity persons) to run a million-dollar business. But that piece of paper is worth a lot of money.” 

Grown In’s Zack Huffman contributed to this report.