New York prison converted to cannabis grow facility

Posted on November 9th, 2021 by Bill Weinberg and tagged , , , , , .

New YorkIn a struggling former prison town in New York state, the closed prison is being converted into a cannabis grow facility, raising hopes for an economic renaissance. Cannabis has been posed as a post-industrial future for the Hudson Valley region, but there is a particular sense of poetic justice to this case.

The facility in the town of Warwick, Orange County, about an hour northwest of New York City, once held people convicted on small-scale drug charges. It is now set to breathe new economic life into the community that hosted it — with one of the very substances that once landed inmates there.

From incarceration to jobs
As the local Warwick Advertiser reports, the site first opened in the 1930s as a reform school for troubled boys. It was converted into a medium-security prison, the Mid-Orange Correctional Facility, in 1979, holding about 1,000 inmates. In July 2011, Gov. Andrew Cuomo's office announced that the facility was one of seven prisons to be closed in a cost-saving move. And in 2014, New York authorities approved the transfer of the property to the Warwick Valley Local Development Corporation.

Warwick lost 450 jobs when the prison closed. But now Chicago-based cannabis company Green Thumb has pledged to create at least 175 jobs at the former prison site, with salaries starting at $50,000, within the first three years of operation. Green Thumb founder and CEO Ben Kovler told New York City's Gothamist, "We're able to invest one hundred-plus million dollars into a project like this, and go from a place where people used to be locked up for marijuana, with their freedom taken away, to a place where we're going to employ people."

Green Thumb, launched in 2014, now operates 16 manufacturing sites, and holds licenses for 111 retail outlets in 14 states, including New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Massachusetts. The company is publicly traded, boasting a total workforce of more than 2,300. It advertises a wide range of products on its website, including vape cartridges, pre-rolled joints, edibles, and cannabinoid-infused skin-care products and topicals.

A somewhat paradoxical booster of the project is local State Sen. Mike Martucci — a Republican who actually voted no on the Marijuana Regulation & Taxation Act (MRTA), which was passed by the Legislature in late March. But now he tells Gothamist that he welcomes the cannabis industry as "a productive and positive addition to our area." 

Martucci even said he hopes to attract more cannabis enterprises to the Hudson Valley, enthusing to Gothamist that the region's "fertile soil, educated workforce and close proximity to New York City sets us up to be the Silicon Valley for the cannabis industry."

Hudson Valley cannabis boom?
Warwick Valley is formed by the Wallkill River, a tributary of the Hudson. Now, the entire greater Hudson Valley region seems poised for a big thrust of cannabis-fueled development.

The local Times Herald-Record reports that Green Thumb bought 38 acres of the former prison grounds for $3.3 million in July, and is set to begin converting the site into a 450,000-square-foot cannabis cultivation and processing plant. Its overall investment in the project is $155 million, with the Orange County Industrial Development Agency arranging $28 million in tax reductions for the deal. These were actually put in place on March 30, the same day MRTA was passed.

And the Green Thumb facility is to anchor a cluster of cannabis industries on the campus, now redubbed the Warwick Valley Office & Technology Corporate Park. The Albany Times-Union reports that Citiva Medical, a subsidiary of iAnthus Holdings — another publicly traded, multi-state cannabis operator — is building a greenhouse and processing facility at the site. Also slated for the campus are Phyto-Farma Labs, which tests cannabis products, and CBD producer Urban Xtracts.

Another Chicago-based firm, PharmaCann, is already producing cannabis for the medical market in Hamptonburgh, also in Orange County. Another cultivation site is slated for Wallkill, just up the river from Warwick, where New York-based Valley Agriceuticals has broken ground on a massive grow facility.

Concerns about equity
It isn't all boosterism, however. And it isn't just local cultural-conservatives who still buy into the cannabis stigma who are expressing skepticism about the regional canna-boom. Gothamist asks if post-drug war social justice "can be achieved by companies representing the mostly white, corporate face of legal weed."

The Gothamist account notes: "Most of the people imprisoned 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 so far."

Green Thumb would not tell Gothamist how many of its more than 3,200 employees across the country are Black, but touted its commitment to "diversity, equity and inclusion" and said that some 30% of employees are "ethnically diverse."

Green Thumb does appear serious about putting money into equity initiatives. The company has launched a Good Green Grant Program to fund non-profits working to repair the social harms of the war on drugs. The first grants, of $75,000 each, were announced this January: to Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity, which provides free legal counseling and representation to low-income Philadelphia residents, and the community development groups Why Not Prosper, Philadelphia and Innovation Works Baltimore.

Green Thumb is additionally participating in Ninety to Zero, an alliance of private-sector actors seeking to help close the "90% wealth gap between white and Black America."

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