Active: Federal lawsuit challenges discrimination in New York licensing

When the State of New York legalized cannabis in 2021, William and Emmet Purcell seized the opportunity to plant roots in the burgeoning industry.

By September 2023, William and Emmet had established their business, Valencia Ag, in upstate New York. They signed a $2,000-per-month lease—plus utilities. All that remained was to get a license. Valencia Ag submitted its application to the State’s Cannabis Control Board on October 12.

The brothers met all of the eligibility requirements related to finances, residency, and the like. But they soon learned the process is rigged when their application was placed at a disadvantage simply because of their race and sex.

New York’s cannabis law requires at least 50% of business licenses go to so-called social and economic equity applicants. These applicants also pay half as much as their non-priority counterparts in applications and annual renewal fees.

License priority is also given to minority and women business owners. Race and sex alone are enough to receive prioritized review of applications and granting of licenses.

William and Emmet do not qualify for priority licensure, and they do not fall into any other neutral category for priority licensure. They are concerned they won’t even get an application review, let alone have a license granted, simply because of their race and sex. As of now, they are sitting at the back of the current line for review and will almost certainly need to reapply in the future, where their race and gender can be used against their application in multiple ways.

Government at all levels is supposed to treat every citizen equally, regardless of race and sex. New York’s cannabis licensing scheme does the exact opposite. It classifies and prioritizes businesses based on the owners’ race and sex when all that should matter is if a company meets objective legal requirements.

As a result, the State of New York is boxing out opportunity based on immutable characteristics that have nothing to do with an individual’s ability to run a competent and safe business.

The Constitution’s equal protection guarantee protects the right to earn a living free from unjust race or gender preferences in government licensing. So the Purcell brothers are fighting back.

Represented by Pacific Legal Foundation at no charge, William and Emmet are challenging New York’s illegal discrimination in the licensure of cannabis businesses in federal court.

What’s At Stake?

  • The government must treat every citizen equally under the law, regardless of race and sex. Laws that grant business licenses based on the race or sex of a company’s owner violate the Constitution.
  • The right of anyone to earn a living is fundamental. Your race or sex shouldn’t determine whether you can pursue a living of your choosing.

Case Timeline

March 13, 2024
United States District Court for the Northern District of New York