How a town in the Hudson Valley turned a disused prison into a thriving cannabis center

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Just over an hour’s drive from New York City, Warwick is one of those Hudson Valley towns perfect for browsing fragrant candlestick boutiques after a hike in the fall foliage. The town was built on farms, small businesses and, until about a decade ago, a medium security prison.

The grounds of the closed Mid-Orange Correctional Facility, which were once incarcerated for drug offenses, are now populated by cannabis companies promising to stimulate economic activity in the area. At least one of these companies, Green Thumb Industries, frames it as a closing story, a chance to correct some of the mistakes of the drug war by creating new opportunities in a once-derided industry. Whether this justice can be achieved by corporations that represent the mostly white, corporate face of the legal weed remains a point of contention for proponents.

Green Thumb, a Chicago-based marijuana company that already operates in 12 states and generated more than $ 550 million in sales last year, is the newest tenant to move into the industrial park that has been converted into a prison, 10 Minutes up a winding road from Warwick’s Main Street.

Last month, the company broke ground for a $ 155 million, 450,000 square foot cultivation and processing facility on the Warwick campus. Green Thumb has a medical marijuana license that allows him to run his own pharmacies in New York, but investing in that facility will also allow him to supply products to other companies entering the new recreational market, developed by the state. Green Thumb is committed to creating at least 175 jobs with salaries of $ 50,000 or more at the Warwick site within the first three years of operation.

Officials speaking at the groundbreaking on Sept. 9 believed Green Thumb to be exactly the kind of company they hoped to continue to lure to the area.

New York State Senator Mike Martucci admitted that he was among the lawmakers initially concerned about the legalization of recreational marijuana in New York, which happened in late March. But Martucci said he has since embraced the industry as a “productive and positive addition to our region”. He was won over by the promise of unionized construction for new facilities and longer-term jobs in biotechnology and agriculture, as well as Green Thumb’s investment in the local community.

Martucci said he was optimistic about attracting more cannabis companies to the Hudson Valley, suggesting that “fertile soil, well-educated workforce and proximity to New York City make us Silicon Valley for the cannabis industry”.

Green Thumb is founded by Citiva Medical, a subsidiary of iAnthus Holdings – another publicly traded, multi-state cannabis operator with an existing medical marijuana license in New York that gives it an edge over new recreational applicants. Their neighbors include Phyto-Farma Labs, which tests cannabis products – a key part of a regulated industry – and Urban Xtracts, a giant hemp processing facility where companies can isolate CBD, a non-highly inducing cannabis extract used in a number of consumer products .

A new legacy

The industrial park that the companies occupy, completed in 2014, was not necessarily designed with cannabis in mind. The idea was to create an attractive replacement for the Mid Orange Correctional Facility, which once provided the area with around 450 jobs and cheap labor from inmates for local public service projects. Mid-Orange was one of seven prisons that former Governor Andrew Cuomo closed in 2011 for a tight budget year to save money.

At the groundbreaking ceremony, Town Supervisor Michael Sweeton praised Mid-Orange as “a great community partner here in our city” and spoke about the shock of the closure and the negative impact on local businesses. After the event, he told WNYC / Gothamist that he began considering the economic power of cannabis when hemp – a plant that differs from marijuana by very low levels of the highly inducing compound THC – federally in 2018 became legal and became a popular crop.

Ben Kovler, founder and CEO of Green Thumb, tried to acknowledge the irony of occupying a site that once housed people incarcerated for drug-related crime. The prison increased from 750 to 1,000 men in the 1980s, with drug laws becoming more stringent. Some of the prison buildings still standing are visible from the construction site.

Ben Kovler, Founder and CEO of Green Thumb Industries, delivered a speech at the groundbreaking ceremony for the company’s new marijuana growing and processing facility in Warwick, NY.

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Ben Kovler, Founder and CEO of Green Thumb Industries, delivered a speech at the groundbreaking ceremony for the company’s new marijuana growing and processing facility in Warwick, NY.

Caroline Lewis

“We understand what happened to the war on drugs,” Kovler told the audience. “We’re planning to turn that around to create credibility, to make the industry credible. Change is really in the air. Change is happening in the country. Change is happening here.”

But replacing the local prison with a cannabis industry doesn’t fix all of the historical injustice associated with the location. Most people jailed on marijuana charges in America and New York are black and Hispanic, while the C-suites at Green Thumb and iAnthus Holdings are almost entirely white – a demographic reflection of the legal cannabis industry as a whole.

Green Thumb wouldn’t say how many of its 3,200+ employees across the country are black, but it did emphasize its commitment to “diversity, equity and inclusion” and said about 30% of its employees are “ethnically diverse”. The company has taken steps towards corporate responsibility. In July, the company pledged $ 1.3 million in proceeds from its Good Green line of products to fund grants for nonprofits that fight the harms of the drug war through professional training and other programs. The company also participates in 90 to Zero, an initiative that guides companies on how to help close the country’s racial wealth gap.

To give more green?

Still, some advocates of legalization say Green Thumb should promise more in exchange for the generous public support it receives from Orange County, or it should be demoted for that support in favor of less fortunate players in the cannabis industry as a whole. In fact, local officials went a long way towards making Green Thumb feel welcome. The Orange County Industrial Development Agency, which aims to bring businesses to the area, has granted Green Thumb a package of tax breaks for locating in Warwick – valued at approximately $ 27 million over 15 years. The company also received help circumventing regulatory hurdles that threatened to delay the move.

Green Thumb entered the New York market by acquiring a medical license from another company for $ 60 million in 2019, and the state initially denied its request to move its manufacturing headquarters from its original Schenectady location to Warwick. The Cuomo government wanted medical marijuana companies to ban such moves until the state introduced the adult market.

But even after recreational grass was legalized, Cuomo didn’t set up the industry’s regulatory body, the Cannabis Control Board. Governor Kathy Hochul appointed its leaders during her first two weeks in office, and the board held its first meeting on Tuesday.

Senator Martucci said he stepped in to help Green Thumb move ahead of the establishment of the board so that construction of the new processing facility could get underway.

“I knew it was important with ours [state] Department of Health, the governor’s office and the company to make sure we changed the schedule, ”Martucci said at the groundbreaking ceremony. “And we did.”

Green Thumb CEO Ben Kovler (center) is flanked by elected officials and union leaders during a photo op at the company's groundbreaking ceremony in Warwick, NY.

Green Thumb CEO Ben Kovler (center) is flanked by elected officials and union leaders during a photo op at the company’s groundbreaking ceremony in Warwick, NY.

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Green Thumb CEO Ben Kovler (center) is flanked by elected officials and union leaders during a photo op at the company’s groundbreaking ceremony in Warwick, NY.

Caroline Lewis

Many factors played a role in choosing a location for Green Thumb’s New York headquarters, but “the most important thing for us is community support where we are welcome,” Kovler told WNYC / Gothamist.

Some architects of the New York City Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act, designed with inclusivity in mind, have questioned the wisdom of such generous support for a company with already enormous financial resources.

“These people have enough money to fund whatever they want to do,” Congregation majority leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes, a major sponsor of the marijuana legislation, told VICE in April.

New York’s Law Legalizing Marijuana for Adult Use states that half of all licenses must go to social justice applicants, including those from communities affected by the war on drugs, and contains provisions to help smaller businesses To open up opportunities. Green Thumb will not be able to sell recreational marijuana until new business applicants can obtain a license, and it is still unclear how long that will take. In the meantime, the company can get a head start on the roughly 18-month process of expanding its facility and making cannabis goods for sale.

Kovler argued that smaller business owners looking to open cannabis dispensaries or lounges would benefit from well-funded pre-contenders like Green Thumb because they don’t have to wait as long for marijuana products to hit their shelves.

And Warwick Town Supervisor Sweeton has defended the tax break as a solid investment.

“This is for the City of Warwick for generations to come,” Sweeton told the audience gathered at the site. “Perhaps we can now have a state-of-the-art facility where young people in our community … can stay in Orange County, find good jobs and work here, and enjoy the quality of life we ​​have enjoyed growing up in this county . “