Service-Disabled Veterans Sue New York’s Cannabis Program


Denied Legal Right to Priority Cannabis Market Entry, Veterans Seek to Overturn & Prevent Expansion of Unconstitutional Licensing Scheme That Prioritizes Criminal Records Over Honorable U.S. Military Service Records

NEW YORK, NY (August 3, 2023) – Four New Yorkers who have collectively served more than two decades in the U.S. Armed Forces today filed a lawsuit against the Office of Cannabis Management’s (“OCM”) CAURD program.

The suit alleges that the OCM has failed to create the legal cannabis market envisioned by New York’s Marihuana Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA), in large part by keeping licenses out of the hands of disabled service veterans and other minority groups the law prioritizes.

The veterans have asked the Court to enjoin the CAURD program and to prevent the State from proceeding with its planned expansion because it has no basis in the MRTA. To date, OCM has awarded 463 conditional adult-use retail dispensary licenses to applicants with prior cannabis convictions and qualifying businesses. 

“It’s out of character for a veteran to sue the state to uphold a law,” said William Norgard, a U.S. Army veteran. “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.”

The veterans’ suit maintains that OCM and the Cannabis Control Board (CCB) overstepped their executive rule-making authority first by creating a licensing category that was not approved by the Legislature and has no basis in the MRTA and then opening the application window for only these individuals. This occurred even though the state Legislature made clear in the MRTA that OCM must open the retail dispensary application window for everyone at the same time. OCM’s defiance of this mandate, the suit argues, violates the New York State Constitution. 

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.

The lawsuit further maintains that if OCM continues the unconstitutional CAURD program, it will irreparably harm service-disabled veterans and other priority groups by excluding them from the marketplace and denying them a first-to-market advantage. 

“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. “We are also the only priority group in the MRTA 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,” Mr. Fiore said. “Then, once it was passed, we were cast aside for another agenda.”

Mr. Fiore’s experience exemplifies the harm inflicted by the OCM and CCB. Not long after the MRTA was signed into law in 2021, Mr. Fiore secured one of the few locations in Suffolk County where an adult-use dispensary would be allowed. After OCM passed over service-disabled veterans and began to license CAURD applicants, Mr. Fiore had to give up that location and has now lost his opportunity to become a market leader on Long Island.

“These folks have invested a lot of money and it’s not getting them anywhere; it’s holding me back as well,” said Steve Mejia, who traveled to more than 20 countries in the Middle East, Southwest Asia, and the Horn of Africa during six years in the U.S. Air Force. “I served in Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom and ended up with cancer connected to my service. I sacrificed for my country and my state and swore to defend and protect its people and its laws. Now New York is refusing to honor its legal obligations to me. Veterans have sacrificed so much for our country and deserve to have a say in the policies that affect us.”

Dominic Spaccio, who also served six years in the U.S. Air Force, said he is “sitting in an empty retail location” in his hometown of Montour Falls, NY, watching helplessly as what he imagined would be a lucrative opportunity in the legal adult-use market passes him by.

“The continued issuance of CAURD licenses puts people with criminal convictions in front of service-disabled veterans and all other MRTA-directed social and economic equity classes,” Mr. Spaccio said. “What I am suing for is equal access under the law. The MRTA does say that there should be equity for certain individuals and not others. I qualify too.”

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