Dasheeda Dawson tells me she’s “excited to be back home.”
After a long sojourn as a cannabis patient, advocate and entrepreneur in other states, the Brooklyn native is back in her hometown as New York City’s first cannabis czar—officially, director of Cannabis NYC, a new office created by Mayor Eric Adams.
Appointed in October 2022, Dawson says her mission is to make the city of her birth “a No.1 global hub demonstrating cannabis industry excellence, grounded in equity and education, across business, science and culture. That mission is something I take very seriously, and I know that it will not be something that happens overnight. This first year has been all about me aggregating, curating and creating a hub of resources and services for people who are interested in entering the legal cannabis industry.”
Cannabis NYC was launched within the city’s Department of Small Business Services (SBS), but Dawson is coordinating an interagency effort—working with the Economic Development Corporation on a loan fund, Citywide Planning on zoning and permitting and the Sheriff’s Department on enforcement. Her direct work with SBS includes a new Fast Track certification program for cannabis start-ups. “We just had our first New York Cannabis Empowerment Week,” Dawson says. “Mayor Adams declared the day, April 14. Right now, we’re letting people know that we exist and that we’re here to help. We’re not hiding in the shadows and we’re not shaming consumers.”
Things have heretofore been off to a slow start in New York City, where, at press time, there are only six licensed dispensaries operating: four in Manhattan and two in Queens. “We have 103 licenses that have been approved in the city,” Dawson says. “We expect locations in Brooklyn and the Bronx to be open soon. We also have one processor license that opened in Queens as well. We have a goal of having the full supply chain in New York City.”
Cannabis NYC is working to provide those 103 license-holders with the real estate, capital and networking they need to get operational ASAP. “And doing it with integrity and understanding the equity mission and goals,” she’s quick to add. Dawson says that four of the six operating outlets are “justice-involved CAURD licensees”—the acronym standing for Conditional Adult Use Retail Dispensary. “That means that they themselves or a direct family member was arrested for cannabis when it was criminalized,” she explains. “We’ve also seen the first Black male-owned and Black woman-owned dispensaries in the Tri-State Area of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. The other two dispensaries are run by nonprofit organizations, which demonstrates New York’s unique model.”
Dawson also stresses that she’s working on the educational front to break down cultural barriers to cannabis’ acceptance. She calls the persisting stigma “cannaphobia” and says she’s combatting it by being a responsible cannabis consumer, a registered medical patient and working within the government.
However, she says that the anti-cannabis narrative in the media is also somewhat responsible. “Media was a culprit in the 1930s with Reefer Madness, and in some ways, we haven’t moved forward. Here in New York, with the largest cannabis consumer population in the country, we still haven’t evolved the language. It’s very difficult to get The New York Times to say, ‘adult use,’ not ‘recreational.’ We don’t have a ‘recreational’ market in New York. Legally, we use the term ‘adult use’ to remove some of the stigma associated with the presumption that everyone is using cannabis for recreation. My job is to expand understanding of the scope of cannabis and its utilities—medicinal, nutritional and spiritual.”
One pressing dilemma is the estimated 1,000 unlicensed dispensaries already operating in NYC. Dawson is dismissive of the claim that those operating on a so-called “club” model (where members pay dues and cannabis is offered at cost) are in line with the law.
“The minute you sell cannabis without a license you’re illegal,” she says. “If the membership is to facilitate getting cannabis, that means they aren’t in alignment with the law. Now, it’d be a different thing if it were BYOC—Bring Your Own Cannabis, where they’re just providing a location. Even that’s a little arguable with OCM [the state Office of Cannabis Management]. But BYOC is a different thing than offering an environment where you can buy cannabis. That’s a model that ultimately needs to be licensed.”
And that’s where Dawson’s collaboration with the NYC Sheriff’s Department comes in—although so far, the enforcement has mostly targeted unlicensed outlets operating near schools or suspected of selling to minors.
“It’s really the state that has to take the lead on this,” she says. “On the flip side, it’s not all about enforcement,” Dawson says. “The Marihuana Regulation & Taxation Act (MRTA) was passed with the intention to un-do the War on Drugs, so we don’t want to have War on Drugs 2.0. We must enforce this time with equity and education as a foundation. That means facilitating the right pathways for people.”
Dawson says she sees a route to licensed operations for community-rooted businesses—not the opportunists who came to New York to capitalize on a lag period between legalization and regulation. Speaking of the cultural shift that will allow legacy operators to be daylighted, she says the less we shame people for consumption, the more we will see people come forward.
Dawson brings a varied spectrum of experience to the job. A medicinal user herself, she decamped more than a decade ago for Arizona, which had an earlier and more expansive medical marijuana program than New York. As a “patient refugee” in her own words, she became a vocal advocate for the plant. From 2020 until she returned to New York City in 2022, Dawson was the cannabis program supervisor in Portland.
In 2016, she founded The WeedHead & Company, which evolved from her blog to a marketing platform for her favorite cannabis products. The WeedHead website describes Dawson as a “corporate-to-cannabis thought leader,” and indeed she held executive positions at Target and Victoria’s Secret before becoming a cannabis promoter and entrepreneur. She also produced what she calls a “workbook,” How to Succeed in the Cannabis Industry. This was all after earning a degree in molecular biology from Princeton University. “I jokingly say I went from Target to THC,” she says with a laugh.
Dawson says New York can do better than other states in crafting a just model of legalization because the social equity vision was there from the start. “With the MRTA, the commitment to an equity program is embedded in the law,” she says. In contrast, Oregon’s 2014 legalization law had no such provisions, and in 2016 Portland voters had to approve an initiative just to get municipal sales tax revenues from cannabis directed to those areas of the city that had been disproportionately impacted by prohibition.
“We’re unique here in New York in that the two leaders at the state and city level are from the advocacy groups that pushed for the legislation,” she says—referring to herself and OCM Chief Chris Alexander, also a longtime activist.
Dawson admits it’ll be a challenge getting capital investment onboard with an equity-first dynamic. “At this year’s Cannabis World Congress & Business Expo, I made clear that we’re unwavering on this,” she says. “We’re the financial capital of the world and we want to be the cannabis capital of the world, but we need the right partners to align with us to move this forward. We want to find those who really want to invest in equity.”
Dawson was a target of stop-and-frisk policies herself in her youth in Brooklyn’s East New York, one of the city neighborhoods hit hardest by prohibition statewide. She says the atmosphere has already changed on the ground in such areas because of MRTA. “I feel safer and more relaxed as a consumer when I step outside. As a young person, I wasn’t a consumer, and I was terrified—because I had natural hair and I had friends that consumed. I commend NYPD for putting up that memo,” she adds, referring to the police force’s post-MRTA memorandum instructing officers not to stop New Yorkers for smoking cannabis on the street.
“At the same time, I think there’s a lot of work to do on the economic development side, to assure that community re-investment occurs in places such as East New York,” she says. “I’m very focused on ensuring that cannabis tax revenues on the local level are used to rebuild—or build to begin with—communities like East New York, that never even got off the ground due to the over-policing and under-investment policies from day one.” Dawson sees the potential for cannabis cultivation under a neighborhood land-trust model. “I’m particularly interested in partnering with the East New York Community Land Trust on ways that we can take public land and make it a public good and make cannabis a crop that can be grown on it.”
The cannabis official points to the newly created Office of Urban Agriculture, which is institutionalizing the long neighborhood tradition of reclaiming vacant lots in once-blighted areas to grow trees, flowers and vegetables. “Cannabis is a critical crop for urban agriculture in New York City,” she says, adding that she’s in a working group with Urban Ag Office Director Qiana Mickie.
Dawson acknowledges the unsustainable carbon footprint of indoor cultivation, but also the limits imposed on outdoor by New York’s relatively short growing season. “I can also see using these empty lots with shipping containers. I see it as mixed, probably—with opportunities for greenhousing on top of buildings.” She points to the work of groups such as New York Small Farma, which is developing new methods to address these ecological dilemmas and says, “They’re going to lead the country in making the indoor space more sustainable.”
Dasheeda Dawson is confident that this vision has the support of both Mayor Adams and Gov. Kathy Hochul (D)—but manifesting it means striking while the proverbial iron is hot. “Our city has to move faster,” she says. “We have a rare window in which the governor and mayor are aligned in probably the largest state that’ll come online this decade as far as cannabis legalization is concerned. We want to make sure we use that window very strategically.” As in now.