When Coss Marte first got into New York City’s cannabis industry in the ’90s he was just 11 years old. But he was a natural entrepreneur. He started his own delivery business and hustled street corners, turning and burning a lot of product and making good money along the way.
At 13, Marte was arrested for the first time. He was at a park in his Lower East Side neighborhood — a part of the city NYPD has historically overpoliced. They found weed and took him into custody.
That was the beginning of a long period in Marte’s life. He was in and out of prison for various drug offenses, living on couches in between, unable to get steady work because of his record and eventually getting sucked into selling harder drugs, getting arrested again and starting all over.
It’s a common story for New Yorkers like Marte. His neighborhood was one of seven in New York City that made up 75% of the state’s prison population. Most were incarcerated for drug-related charges. According to Human Rights Watch, there are currently 22,386 people in New York prisons for drug offenses.
Despite the obstacles, Marte has launched a successful international fitness program known as CONBODY, and is now preparing to open the world’s first cannabis dispensary run entirely by formerly incarcerated people: CONBUD.
“I want to change people’s perceptions of … formerly incarcerated people,” Marte says. “I want to make a statement and show that we have untapped talent, we have the intelligence to run a business, that we have the skills and the charisma to make that happen.”
When a friend in Massachusetts who owned a dispensary reached out and offered him a job, Marte was excited by the prospect — only to discover that anyone with a record like his couldn’t legally work in Massachusetts’ cannabis industry.
Most states have a similar law — New York and Colorado included. People with felonies on their records are prohibited from participating in the cannabis industry at any level. In this state, Gov. Jared Polis has instituted a cannabis-crimes pardon program that also has a record expungement element. Those who complete the application process and are granted a pardon can get a job in Colorado’s cannabis industry.
However, New York State took that a step further. Its Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Action Act of 2021 stipulated that five “social and economic equity” classes should get 50% of the employment opportunities in the state’s cannabis industry. And one of those five classes was formerly incarcerated individuals.
“I was like, ‘They wrote this for me,’” Marte says.
He got all the paperwork in order and when state dispensary applications opened in February of 2022, he and his business partners, Alredo Angueira and Junior Martinez, were waiting at midnight, refreshing the page, poised to be the first to submit their application. They would later learn it wasn’t on a first-come-first-served basis — but they were first nevertheless.
“We are committed to leveraging New York’s recreational cannabis industry to bring much-needed employment stability to those who have been affected by it,” Angueira, who is also a lawyer and community advocate, said in a press release.
“CONBUD will be a dispensary, an interactive experience, and an opportunity for millions of cannabis consumers to confront New York’s history while playing an active role in rewriting it,” Martinez said.
CONBUD is currently scouting locations in Manhattan and hoping to open in fall 2023.
When it does, Marte will have come full circle. He will have gone from selling weed on the streets to owning a first-of-its-kind dispensary that’s taking a massive swing at the cultural stigmas of cannabis and cannabis crime.
“It’s been a crazy journey,” Marte says. “I feel like I’m living in the Twilight Zone.”