ConBud in New York – Taking Social Equity to New Heights

Given the decades of socio-economic damage and incarceration caused by the somehow still ongoing drug war, the long path of righting the countless societal wrongs committed by this nearly 50-year-old failure will consist of many different but equally important steps. Along with expungement measures that were included in the cannabis legislation of massive states such as Illinois and New York, another unique but highly opportunistic way that state lawmakers are trying to amend the colossal wrongs of the drug war is by incorporating social equity applicants into their state’s cannabis application process. With this special distinction, the social equity applicants themselves come from neighborhoods and zip codes that were horribly impacted by the socially unbalanced cannabis prohibition of yesteryear. In many instances, the applicant has been directly affected by the enforcement of that prohibition which frequently resulted in incarceration for either themselves or their family members and friends.

For one dispensary in New York however, the owners, operators and employees are taking the cornerstones and possibilities of social equity to an entirely new level. As one of the first New York social equity dispensaries to receive a Conditional Adult-Use Retail Dispensary license, CONBUD is totally owned and operated on every level by employees and cannabis professionals who were all previously incarcerated themselves. As one of the only licensed dispensaries in New York City and the only one currently operating in the Lower East Side neighborhood which itself was heavily impacted by the drug war, CONBUD is showcasing how unjust incarceration can turn into tremendous opportunities.

And in staying true to those themes and values, the tagline of the Delancey Street store carries quite a bit of magnitude for believers in second chances and criminal justice reform while also promoting the quality of their products.

“You Get Premium Bud, We Get Second Chances.”

“Established and operated by former convicts,” the website for the Lower East Side dispensary reads, “CONBUD stands as a pioneering dispensary in New York City. Our commitment to exceptional quality and premium cannabis products is matched only by our dedication to providing second chances.”

Having employees who were so derailed by the unfortunate prosecution and conviction of cannabis charges is a value that runs all the way up to CONBUD CEO Coss Marte. With his first arrest occurring at only age 13 in the disproportionately impacted neighborhood of the Lower East Side, it’s quite a full circle moment that the first dispensary owned and operated by formerly incarcerated people is in that same part of town. After spending a total of six unnecessary years incarcerated due to drug charges, he opened a fitness studio called CONBODY which was his first avenue to destigmatize the formerly incarcerated, before using the floor space below the fitness studio to open the riveting dispensary which is showing the necessity of social equity.

With a sprawling sales floor of approximately 2,500 sq ft, the architecture and design of the dispensary is on par in terms of innovation with multi-state operator-owned dispensaries while also invoking thematic elements of the troubling and judicially unwarranted past of both cannabis and the employees and operators themselves. The display cases are made to look like milk crates, which is an homage to the milk crates that Marte and other employees would sit on while selling cannabis. With a green hue wrapped throughout the vast sales floor, it’s a thematic incorporation of not only the color of the plant that turned from a crime to a business opportunity, but also a callback to the colors of the uniforms in New York State’s prisons. Even the entrance of the dispensary is painted the dark green hue of the Empire State’s incarcerated, with white stenciled letting synonymous with prison that displays the name of the revolutionary dispensary.

Most notably, shelving units that resemble the shape of bent prison bars feature brands specifically featuring cannabis brands owned and operated by BIPOC, legacy, LGBT and veterans.

“Our aim is to establish a social equity framework for our nation’s cannabis industry by providing meaningful and stable employment to a highly vulnerable albeit highly capable population,” said CONBUD CCO Alfredo Angueira, a lawyer who taught legal research skills to Rikers Island detainees. Even more tragically, many of the detainees that Angueira taught were only pretrial defendants, meaning that they had yet to actually have their day in a court of law in front of a judge.

“CONBUD stands as a symbol of hope and progress, showcasing a vision for a future where consumers and businesses partner to reduce recidivism rates, rebuild lives and create stronger, more inclusive communities.” Marte said.

The countless wrongs committed during the devastating decades of the drug war can’t ever truly be properly amended, as you can’t give anyone years of their life back after they spent those likely formative years behind bars. But what legislators could do is provide those who were once victimized by the deeply flawed criminal justice system with employment and business opportunities and further second chances, which CONBUD as a dispensary and institution is a shining example of.

Aaron Pelley

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