Bridge West Consulting had an opportunity to speak with Philip Bolen, a lobbyist and the Director of Public Policy for the law firm Shenker Russo & Clark in Albany, NY. It was a pleasure speaking with Phil, and we enjoyed learning about his cannabis industry expertise, his extensive knowledge of the New York cannabis marketplace, and his insights related to the industry challenges that New York cannabis entrepreneurs face.
Please tell us about your background:
Philip Bolen is the Director of Public Policy for the law firm Shenker Russo & Clark in Albany, NY. He lobbied extensively on the New York medical cannabis program, as well as the full legalization of adult use cannabis. Phil successfully worked on major issues including securing $55 million dollars for direct care worker wage increases, securing $20 million dollars for legal aid services to prevent foreclosures, the creation of a multi-billion-dollar state program to improve New York’s clean water infrastructure, and the restoration of Medicaid cuts to the state budget.
In 2020, Phil was named by City & State Magazine as an “Albany 40 Under 40 Rising Star” for his work at Bolton-St. Johns.
Phil grew up just outside Syracuse and started going to school for civil engineering in Florida. He was studying to work at airports and said that civil engineering is “nothing like lobbying!” After returning to Syracuse, New York, Phil decided to study at the University of Buffalo. He took a few general education and political courses, which he found to be fascinating. After a few years, Phil changed his education path, and he earned a double major.
After finishing school, Phil began a fellowship in Washington D.C. for Senator Charles Schumer, and he focused on grants work. At this point, Phil decided that he was either going to work for the New York State Capital or New York State Government or go back to school and earn a master’s degree. He applied for the master’s program in Albany and received an opportunity for a paid internship. Phil interviewed at a lobbying firm because he found it really interesting, and there were many different areas that he was unfamiliar with but wanted to learn about.
How did you first start working in the cannabis industry?
During his time at the lobbying firm, Phil started to focus on cannabis work. The firm had been advocates and stakeholders in the cannabis industry working on the Compassionate Care Act for several years. Phil had come in at a relatively late stage as a “wide-eyed kid.” He was fortunate enough, however, to attend numerous meetings with legislators and stakeholders, and would eventually go on to lead some too. Phil’s goal was to solidify the specifics of the bill and be in the same room where it was being written. That summer, the Compassionate Care Act passed, and Phil described it as “a kickoff to this new path and such a big victory.”
At the same time, a medical cannabis company that Phil worked with won one of five vertically integrated licenses. This meant that he was able to see the process firsthand and watch the program’s development. He visited their cultivation facility and would interact with the State Department of Health, who was controlling the medical program at the time.
On March 31, 2021, the cannabis industry pivoted, and The Marihuana Regulation & Taxation Act (MRTA) was signed into law legalizing adult-use cannabis in New York State. In 2019, it was very close to being enacted, but it couldn’t quite get across the finish line. 2020 was going to be the NY cannabis industry’s year for legalization and then the pandemic put a hold on it. This past year, the industry finally got there after so many years of championing it.
What was it like to be a part of NY’s Cannabis Legalization?
Phil is proud to be a part of the tapestry of hundreds of people who contributed to legislation being passed in NY and playing a role in the industry’s push into existence. He comments, “As someone who helps facilitate meetings between advocates, elected officials, stakeholders, and state agencies, I’m very proud that at the end of the day, I was able to participate in a few hundred at every level of negotiation. Truthfully, it’s always exciting, and I’ve been in some meetings where some folks have no idea of anything to do with the industry. I spend time with parents, and cannabis is transformative for them because in some cases, it helps their kids stop having seizures. I spend time with folks who want corrections to the criminal justice system and everything in between, and you see all these different stories and perspectives, and it’s fascinating. It helps ground me in what I’m doing to have helped in whatever little way to get this legislation across the finish line. It is the most exciting thing I’ve had an opportunity to do in my eight-plus years in the industry.”
Tell us about the role of a lobbyist, and how is this role different in the cannabis industry?
We asked Phil to explain the role of a lobbyist and he said, “It’s a real fine line, both from a personal preference and I think it’s professional etiquette. You never want to walk into a situation not knowing what you’re talking about, but at the same time, you never want to come off as talking over a client or an elected official. A lot of what you’re doing is strategizing behind the scenes and coaching through with the advocates, and guiding stakeholders regarding what they say to a particular elected official. It’s important to know how to best mesh personalities, but it’s also a lot of steering. If conversations hit a wall or there is a clear difference in personalities or viewpoints, you want to try to bridge the gaps wherever you can.”
What type of work do you enjoy the most and what is unique about the New York cannabis market?
Although Phil also works in many different industries, being a lobbyist in the cannabis industry is most rewarding to him. He said that it is because cannabis is a new industry, and it has not existed before.
Phil describes the New York cannabis market as unique compared to the rest of the country regarding best practices. He says, “I’ve heard a lot of people describe it as building the plane while you’re flying it, but in a good way. I also heard that in other industries, for the most part, you know what you’re dealing with. And with the cannabis industry, they’re hiring people to staff the state agency. They’re writing the regulations in real-time. So you try to be a part of that, commenting on it, and everything starts from scratch.”
Phil continues, “The New York Cannabis Control board has been able to look at the history of what has worked and what doesn’t in other states. In New York, there is a massive push for social equity and restorative justice. “I am happy to be a part of a group of people that can look at what has worked and what hasn’t worked and be able to see what has been implemented in a real tangible way here in New York.”
What challenges do you see with the New York cannabis market because the state is so vast?
Phil says, “It was a challenge getting the bill passed because many communities were very effusive from the start about not wanting dispensaries or consumption lounges in their town.” Over time, Phil predicts that they’ll start to see the benefit of it economically in the other cities. He continued, “There is support from the people of New York statewide, and as it gets implemented and people begin to see the positive results it brings to their communities, support will continue to increase.”
Do you have opportunities to meet with governors and town officials?
Phil says, “The previous administration had the CRTA (Cannabis Regulation and Taxation Act) through the Governor’s budget. At the time, the legislature had rejected it, and replaced it with their bill, the MRTA, which was passed. The conversations were primarily through the Senate Assembly and respective counsel bill sponsors. Now that it’s been enacted and Governor Kathy Hochul confirmed her nominees, the conversations mainly have been going through the OCM and the Cannabis Control board. During this initial regulatory process, we’re trying to make our voices heard for the clients I work with because some of them have experiences in other states. Others just read the news of what’s happening in other states and want to make their voices heard.”
Is social equity a considerable part of the New York cannabis industry?
Phil comments, “Yes, absolutely. The elected officials in the state Assembly, primarily via Majority Leader People Stokes and Liz Kruger in the Senate had made it very clear from day one that the MRTA needed to focus on criminal justice reform and social equity. This would help by making things right from the failed war on drugs. To that end, in the bill’s final version they set aside that 50% of all of the licenses, everything from cultivation, processing, distribution, dispensary, and microbusiness, has to go to social equity applicants. This is reflected in this initial proposal in the Governor’s budget to set aside social equity funds for these retail dispensaries to get these small businesses up and running off the ground.”
Do you think micro cannabis licenses will be a game changer for the New York market?
Phil says, “I think that, personally, this is just pontificating at the moment without regulations and without any idea of what canopy sizes are going to look like. But at the same time, it’s different one-to-one. The microbreweries across the state of New York have taken off and become an integral part of the economy for particular communities, especially across upstate New York. I think the intention with the microbusiness licenses is to replicate that in the cannabis space. My hope, along with many of the conversations I’ve had, is that these micro cannabis licenses will do great, if not be even more successful.”
Do you have an opportunity to speak with New York cannabis operators about their day-to-day experiences and challenges?
Phil explains, “I still speak with one of the Registered Organizations in this space as far as the day-to-day concerns of being an operator, and I get that insight there. I remember when parents testified that they were New York born and raised and loved the state. Their child had a very severe illness, and cannabis was the only thing that made a difference. I believe it was a seizure disorder, and cannabis made it controllable. They wanted to stay in New York but didn’t want to worry about the criminal aspects and the potential legal problems in the state. They said if they had to move to Colorado, they would, but it would be heartbreaking. Fortunately, that summer the Compassionate of Care Act was signed.”
He continues, “The medical program has improved over the years, but it was great to revisit the beginning. It was gratifying to be a part of this program that’s changed many people’s lives. I think that it will continue to change from other aspects, whether it be economical, restorative, or justice, and change so many more lives in the years to come.”
What hobbies do you have outside of work?
In Phil’s free time, he enjoys traveling! Before the pandemic, Phil visited 49 out of 50 states and he hopes to travel to Hawaii soon to complete all 50 states!