Ahead of her appearance at Business of Cannabis: New York at the end of the week (November 03), we caught up with Arana Hankin Biggers, CEO of Union Square Travel Agency, to discuss the importance of the CAURD programme, and how its been to be one of the first legal cannabis dispensaries in the state.
BofC: Hi Arana, for our readers who might not be familiar, can you tell us a bit about your background and how you got into the cannabis industry?
Arana: I’m relatively new to the legal cannabis industry, and I have a decades-long love for the plant, products, and community. When adult- use cannabis became legal in NYS on April 1, 2021, I formed a team with a few friends and old colleagues in pursuit of a license.
I had worked in real estate development, and NYS politics for close to a decade prior, building and implementing initiatives that provided economic opportunities to communities of color, and finding creative ways to support local not for profits and artists. The cannabis industry allowed me to bring all of these skills together for the first time, and gave me the opportunity to be a part of a new and emerging industry, while prioritizing social justice.
BofC: Tell us about Union Square Travel Agency and where it all got started?
Arana: We are a New York born company – a partnership with a group of local entrepreneurs, and the not for profit, The Doe Fund. More than half of all profits are redirected to the amazing work that The Doe Fund does, serving formerly incarcerated and formerly homeless Black and Brown men. The organization provides paid employment, transitional housing and a variety of support services.
We wanted our cannabis brand to be aspirational and forward looking, and to focus on how cannabis can help transform people’s lives for the better, and correct the wrongs of the past, specifically through the structure that NYS has created.
The name, Union Square Travel Agency, is meant to express how people can realize their best selves. The brand is meant to be fun and witty, connote adventure, exploration and creative expression through cannabis.
BofC: You were the third licensed store to open in New York State, how important was the CAURD programme in making this happen?
Arana: The CAURD program allowed for our unique partnership with a not for profit. It gave us the ability to be one of the first ones to enter the market. The CAURD program also helped us to impact NYS cannabis in a meaningful way, reinforcing the importance of using this newly legal industry to help reverse the wrongs done by failed war on drug policies.
We are proud to be able to support this effort with our partnership with The Doe Fund and to be able to show through our actions that cannabis should be used to heal and help people, not to further disenfranchise.
BofC: How has business been since you launched earlier this year?
Arana: We have been on a crazy ride since we opened this past February. Clearly we are still very much competing with the illicit market, but we have been able to build a business that has garnered quite a bit of loyalty.
We are still one of the few legal dispensaries open in Manhattan, and New Yorkers have begun to understand the value of shopping at a legal dispensary and consuming legal cannabis. We have an incredibly knowledgeable and personable team of budtenders working with us who help to educate our customers, ensuring they are matched with the best product to fit their needs.
BofC: Your location puts you in the vicinity of a high number of illicit stores, how has this impacted your business?
Arana: The illicit market has had an impact on our business, but once customers learn about this amazing new legal market in NYS, they don’t go back to shopping at illicit stores. Discerning customers want to know what they are consuming, and prefer our full service shopping experience.
BofC: Has this gotten better since the state’s attempts to crack down?
Arana: It has definitely been a slow process, but we are grateful to all the work the State and City has put in to crack down on illicit stores. It will take some time, but progress has been made. We are confident that the crackdown will continue, and that most of these illicit shops will be eliminated in the near future.
This concise guide is designed to help you navigate a recreational dispensary in NYC — what to expect, what they offer, and what to look for as you shop at a bona fide, licensed dispensary: https://t.co/70vW43Ha5Y pic.twitter.com/qoWoQKqXbY
— unionsquaretravelagency (@usqtravelagency) August 28, 2023
BofC: The CCB also recently announced that medical cannabis operators will soon be able to enter the market. This has proved a controversial decision among many stakeholders. What impact do you feel this is likely to have on the industry’s development?
Arana: The intent of the CAURD program was to give individuals who had been harmed by the prohibition of cannabis a headstart in the market. The goals of this program have struggled for many reasons, one of which is a robust illicit market.
I do believe that there is room for everyone in the NY market. This will be one of the largest markets in the world. And the sooner we achieve a healthy legal market – a market with more legal players – the sooner CAURDS will be able to benefit from new market share. There will always be a place for smaller and more unique operators. Cannabis consumers crave diverse options.
BofC: You said in a previous interview that you had little ‘hope that smaller operators or brands will be able to succeed in NYC’, is this still a position you hold and why?
Arana: It is not easy operating a legal cannabis dispensary, and I still believe that the State gravely underestimated how complex and difficult this business is. Unless the illicit market disappears overnight, smaller retail operators will struggle.
On the brand side, there is definitely space for diverse top performers, brands that are incredibly savvy on brand development and with their marketing. We have some tremendous smaller NYS brands that are doing very well. But our top sellers are national brands. And of the 60+ brands that we carry, less than 10% are BIPOC-owned.
BofC: What do you think the state could change to make it easier for businesses which want to follow in your footsteps?
Arana: Thankfully the MRTA bill mandates that 50% of all licenses go to social equity applicants, which includes Blacks, Latinos, Women, Disabled Vets, and others, so that is a pretty good start. And while there has been issues with DASNY’s rollout of the social equity fund and securing real estate for licensees, New York’s program has gone further than any other state to date.
I am hopeful that NYS will continue to refine and adjust the social equity program to make sure that there is space and support in this market for a diverse group of operators and owners.
This Nov 3rd, join us for the third edition of Business of Cannabis: New York at the New York Academy of Medicine. A day long leadership summit focused on retail, investment & policy across New York and North America. Tickets on-sale now – www.cannabisnewyork.live