A group of four military veterans last week filed suit against New York’s Office of Cannabis Management (OCM), claiming that the agency’s rules that prioritize applicants with prior marijuana convictions for cannabis dispensary licenses violate the state’s 2021 marijuana legalization statute. In a complaint filed in the New York State Supreme Court, the four plaintiffs argue that state regulators failed to follow the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA) when it did not issue cannabis retail licenses to disabled veterans and members of other minority groups. The lawsuit seeks a temporary restraining order barring the state from issuing further licenses under the Conditional Adult-Use Retail Dispensary (CAURD) program, which have been reserved for applicants with a marijuana-related criminal conviction.

The MRTA included provisions that set a goal of awarding at least half of the state’s recreational marijuana dispensaries to social and economic equity applicants. Under an initiative spearheaded by New York Governor Kathy Hochul last year, the state’s first licenses for retail cannabis shops have been reserved for “individuals most impacted by the unjust enforcement of the prohibition of cannabis or nonprofit organizations whose services include support for the formerly incarcerated.” 

To be eligible for a CAURD license, applicants are required to either have had a cannabis conviction or be the family member of someone with a cannabis conviction, among other criteria. Nonprofits with a history of serving formerly incarcerated or currently incarcerated individuals were eligible to apply for a CAURD license. So far, the OCM has issued 463 CAURD licenses, although less than two dozen dispensaries have opened across the state so far.

“The MRTA had already established a goal to award 50% of all adult-use licenses to social and economic equity applicants. But instead of following the law, OCM and CCB created their own version of ‘social equity’ and determined for themselves which individuals would get priority to enter New York’s nascent adult-use cannabis market,” reads a statement on behalf of the veterans bringing the legal action.

Lawsuit Argues OCM Rules Unconstitutional

The lawsuit was filed by four U.S. veterans who have served a combined more than two decades in various branches of the military. They argue that restricting retail licenses to those with cannabis convictions was not approved by the legislature and violates the state Constitution.

“It’s out of character for a veteran to sue the state to uphold a law,” William Norgard, one of the plaintiffs in the case and a U.S. Army veteran, said in a statement quoted by the Olean Times Herald. “We take oaths to defend the laws of our nation, and trust — maybe naively — that government officials will faithfully and legally execute those laws. What the Office of Cannabis Management is doing right now is in complete breach of that trust. As veterans, we know that someone has to hold the line.”

“Service-disabled veterans are the only social equity group in the law not born into priority status, but a group to which anyone could belong,” said Carmine Fiore, who served eight years in the U.S. Army and New York Army National Guard and is also one of the four plaintiffs in the case. “We are also the only priority group in the (law) that achieved its status by helping communities.” 

“It feels like we were used to get a law passed — a good law, one that helps a lot of people, as well as the state,” Fiore added. “Then, once it was passed, we were cast aside for another agenda.”

The other plaintiffs are Steve Mejia and Dominic Spaccio, who both served six years in the U.S. Air Force.

Lucas McCann, co-founder and chief scientific officer at cannabis compliance consulting firm CannDelta Inc., notes that there is no mention of the CAURD program in the MRTA. When the program was created, the definition of social equity was defined to exclusively include those with previous cannabis-related convictions and previous business experience. But a broader definition of social equity may be appropriate, and future rounds of licensing could include members of other groups, McCann says.

“The grievances brought forward by the four military veterans highlight another facet of the ‘social equity’ conversation that cannot be ignored. Veterans, particularly disabled ones, face their own set of challenges and hurdles,” he wrote in an email. “Their dedicated service to the nation warrants recognition and inclusion in the emerging industry, especially when considering the potential therapeutic benefits of cannabis for a myriad of health issues commonly faced by veterans.”

Michelle Bodian, a partner at the leading cannabis and psychedelics law firm Vicente LLP, said that is too early to determine how the lawsuit will affect the continuing rollout of New York’s regulated marijuana industry. 

“There is always a chance the lawsuit will succeed, and the CAURD program will be halted; however, it’s equally as likely the state will settle with the plaintiffs and award them a license,” Bodian said in a statement to High Times. “As the TRO hearing is scheduled for later this week, we should know in short order whether the CAURD program is frozen in place or whether new provisional or final licenses can be awarded.”

When asked about the legal action, an OCM spokesperson told local media outlets that the agency does not comment on pending litigation.

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