Joseph B. Simons had one of his first memorable experiences with marijuana when he was arrested for smoking a joint during his senior year at Oneonta High School.
He used this experience in 2002 as motivation to go to law school and start a successful criminal law practice in the Boston area.
Simon’s high school conviction also proved instrumental in becoming the first person to receive a New York State license to open a recreational marijuana (dispensary) store in central New York.
“It was definitely a motivational tool for me,” said Simons. “It changed the way I see things.”
Simons received one of 99 new retail weed licenses announced Monday by the state Office of Cannabis Management. This brings the total number of retail licenses issued by the state to 165, although only six stores have actually opened.
Central New York is one of several regions in the state lagging behind in licenses because a court order prevented the state from issuing individual licenses in those areas until last month. Now only the Finger Lakes are prohibited from having licensees.
Simons, who hopes to open his store in or near Syracuse, has qualified for a license under the state’s Conditional Adult-Use Retail Dispensary (CAURD) program, a key element of what the state is aiming for social justice in establishing legal marijuana businesses.
For now, the CAURD program limits licensees to individuals, or close relatives of individuals, who have a history of marijuana crimes and who also have successful business experience. Other licenses go to nonprofits that serve those affected by previous cannabis convictions.
Simons, 38, is the first individual CAURD licensee in central New York. The only other license in Central New York went to a subsidiary of the nonprofit Loretto, the major local nursing home agency.
Like Loretto, Simons has yet to decide where or when his store will open. He knew he wanted to settle somewhere in central New York because he knows the area well (his parents still live in Oneonta).
He thinks Syracuse is the “most likely” location because it’s the “population center” of the region.
“I’m used to Central New York, that’s where I grew up,” Simons said. “I want to use it (the pharmacy) to revitalize the community and attract good jobs and taxpayer money. It’s my way of giving back, redeeming myself, so to speak.”
Of course, Simons believes that his law firm, which has offices in Boston and Salem, Mass. has redeemed. After graduating from SUNY Oneonta, he attended Suffolk University Law School in Boston.
It all goes back to that incident in the high school parking lot, he said.
“I’ve never really done anything outwardly to get into trouble,” he said. “But that seemed to put me on a different track.”
He also noted how this affected a school friend who was arrested at the same time and whose life plans changed.
“It just didn’t feel right to have something like that in your life, maybe even end up in prison,” he said. “Until now I never thought about going to court. … That’s why I became a lawyer, to help people in such situations.”
Now that he’s licensed, Simons will begin putting together a plan for his dispensary, where he can sell marijuana in forms you can smoke, vape, eat, or drink.
He has not yet decided whether he will look for his own location or enlist the assistance of the State Cannabis Office, which has designated the New York State Residence to help locate and build dispensaries for CAURD license holders .
Simons, who lives north of Boston and has been described as a “fan” of marijuana, said he might end up hiring a manager to run the store. But he also said there’s a possibility he’ll consider a career change and come to Central New York to run the business himself.
“I could imagine doing that,” he said. “I believe in the future of this business.”
Simons’ success in obtaining a license in central New York came as a surprise to some people who have been in the trenches of the state’s cannabis industry since recreational use was legalized in April 2021.
“Everyone’s like, ‘Who is this guy?’ said Mike Golden, who has been working on a retail license application with his partner Byron Cage for more than a year. “Nobody seems to know him.”
Joe Rossi, who runs a Syracuse-based cannabis industry lobbying firm, had a similar reaction, particularly when he learned that Simon lives out of state.
“Yes, but if he lives outside of NYS…” Rossi wrote in an email to syracuse.com. “Wow.”
More coverage of cannabis in central New York
Don Cazentre writes for NYup.com, syracuse.com, and The Post-Standard. Reach him at dcazentr[email protected] or follow him on NYup.com, on Twitter or on Facebook.