Tara Rosenblum: Reporting on New York’s Cannabis Licensing Quagmire

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This episode of The Ganjapreneur Podcast features Tara Rosenblum, an investigative reporter for News 12, who has recently released a compelling documentary titled “Cannabis Contest.” The documentary offers an in-depth look at the social equity aspects of cannabis licensing in New York City, showcasing the challenges and triumphs of hopeful licensees within the evolving legal landscape — including another previous guest on the show, Jeremy Rivera. With nearly two decades of investigative reporting experience in the New York City market, Tara explores the community dynamics and the critical issues affecting residents and aspiring entrepreneurs. This episode dives into the complexities of cannabis policy, personal journeys of license applicants, and the broader societal implications as cannabis goes from underground economy to regulated business. To listen to the full episode, use the player below or stream via your favorite podcast app! (Scroll down for the full transcript.)

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Editor’s note: this transcript was auto-generated and may contain errors.

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TG Branfalt (00:49):

Hey there, I’m your host, TG Branfalt, and this is the Ganjapreneur.com podcast where we try to bring you actionable information and normalized cannabis through the stories of ganjapreneurs, activists and industry stakeholders. Today I’m joined by Tara Rosenblum. She’s an investigative reporter for News 12. Rosenblum’s recent documentary Cannabis Contest was released last month and focuses on social equity cannabis licensees in New York City. How are you doing this afternoon, Tara?

Tara Rosenblum (01:17):

Hey, TG. I am excited to be with you. Thanks for having me.

TG Branfalt (01:20):

I am delighted to have you. I watched the series that you released. We’ll talk about that in a minute. Before we get to that though, tell me a little bit about you, your background, your career, and how your investigative work set the stage for this documentary.

Tara Rosenblum (01:35):

Sure. So I am a longtime news veteran of the New York City market. I’m now approaching my 20 year anniversary at News 12. Congratulations wise, when you’re having fun, right. But yeah, I got my start working at some of the national networks and I was behind the scenes, and then I wanted to be on camera myself and do some of my own reporting and did that steady parade through small markets throughout the country and then found my way to New York, worked at a couple of stations in New York and then wound up at News 12, 20 years ago. And since then, I’ve worn a lot of hats. I’ve produced, written, reported, I do a lot of politics hosting. I was an anchor for a majority of my time. And about five years ago I became a full-time investigative reporter. And I feel like that’s my sweet spot of journalism. I really, really get a lot of satisfaction out of being a full-time investigator.

TG Branfalt (02:34):

Well, and as a media studies professor, one of the things that I know and I’ve studied is that people tend to trust their local news anchors and local news outlets far more than they do national outlets. With that said, why did you choose to do this documentary and focus on this segment of your community?

Tara Rosenblum (02:58):

I think what has made my team, I think a majority of our success in recent years can be attributed to the fact that my team and I, we know the pulse of the Tri-state. We know what people are talking about. We know what they care about. We know what they think about, we know what has deep impact in their lives. And so my intuition kicked in when I heard about this story, and it felt like every time I went to the supermarket, people were coming up and talking to me about this whole cannabis legalization thing and what’s it going to look like in my neighborhood and what’s it going to mean for my downtown and is it coming here? And when you start to hear about that weekly, daily, we knew that this was a topic that needed to be covered in a more comprehensive way than just splashing out the headlines. And I decided to go for it and really go a couple layers beneath the surface here. And how do we do that? Well, let’s tell it through the lens of people who are going through the process.

TG Branfalt (04:00):

And that’s what I found really interesting about the series was that you focused a lot on New York state policy. You told the stories of the individuals who were being affected, at least a couple of them out of hundreds, and you didn’t editorialize, which I think is very important as we’re in the nascency of this industry. And we’ll talk about that too in a couple of minutes. But how did you identify the people to include in this documentary?

Tara Rosenblum (04:30):

And I think you touched on something really important, and I hope we circle back to that, is that whole editorializing of news in general and how we avoided that with this project, but how we found the applicant. So that was the biggest challenge. So I decided that I wanted to take on this project. As far as we know, we are the only news outlet that followed this process so intensely soup to nuts through the lens of the card applicants. And so how do we find those applicants? I obviously wanted to find people who are outspoken and passionate and deeply impacted by the social equity process. And so at that time, people weren’t putting it on social media. Hey, I’m a card applicant. There was no list. There was no database out there. And so I said, geez, how am I going to find these people? No luck. I went on Facebook, I went on Reddit. Wasn’t having much luck there. So what I decided to do is I spent a few weeks on making a list of every single cannabis lawyer I could find in the news.

Tara Rosenblum (05:35):

And started cold calling all of these big firms, Hey, I’m calling from News 12. Do you have any card applicants? And then at first we were facing people who were like, why are you calling me? Why do you need this information? And then when we walked them through the process, I told ’em about my unit, sent them other documentaries I had done, we were able to convince them to give us access to their clients, and then we wound up with more than we could have dreamed of. And it was a matter of finding the three that characters that I felt were going to be the most compelling to share this journey. And the other part was interesting about it, TJ, was that of course, it was a gamble. We had no idea whether these applicants were going to be successful or not. And how would a documentary turn out if I had three applicants and none of them made it to the finish line. So we just spent a lot of time getting to know them and their backstories, and I was really comfortable that we picked three people who came from really diverse backgrounds and just representing just three entirely different journeys.

TG Branfalt (06:43):

Now, do you think that maybe you hit some of those early roadblocks because of maybe some hesitancy among applicants on maybe interacting with the press? I mean, let’s be honest, the press, whether it be local or national or in general, hasn’t always been really friendly to the cannabis industry.

Tara Rosenblum (07:02):

And again, I came into this as a cannabis novice storyteller, so I was learning as I went. So I can’t speak to the national tone of cannabis coverage, but certainly it was very evident. One of my three applicants was a former female cannabis marijuana dealer on the streets of New York. And she told me from the get go, Hey, listen, this is a story that you are not going to hear frequently. I am one of very few female dealers who was going to share this story in such a public fashion. And when we asked her why that was the case, it’s because they had really, she said people like her have felt really disenfranchised along the way trying to get their message out.

TG Branfalt (07:49):

And you had said that you’re a novice covering the cannabis industry, and one of the things that really struck me is you and I believe it was Jeremy in this field of cannabis plants. What was that experience like for you as somebody who doesn’t have a background in the space of probably, have you ever toured a cannabis farm before?

Tara Rosenblum (08:08):

My first time was for this project and what an experience, right? Yeah. So that was a little daunting going into all of this. And I’m googling words and slang words after every interview. I really came into this as a blank slate. But I think that’s what made the experience so cool is you can see us going on that journey. We take viewers along and you can start out with me knowing nothing. And I feel like by the end of our documentary, you really have a strong taste of what this process has been like and what’s at stake. So we really just learned with every shoot and every interview and every day that we got to cover this story. But on the other hand, I say it was daunting, but that’s just what we do. I feel like every time I take on a big societal project, I come in at an elementary school level and graduate with a PhD on the subject.

TG Branfalt (09:03):

So you’ve been reported for 20 years, and obviously you watch just as much as everyone else, probably the coverage of a cannabis legalization in New York, it was a fraught process as you point out in the documentary. Then there was the rash of illegal dispensaries, especially in New York City that got a lot of sort of bad press. Could you tell me about how News 12 and maybe some other local outlets covered cannabis legalization in New York, and did you particularly see a focus on negatives or positives in that coverage?

Tara Rosenblum (09:41):

So you have to realize, ironically, TJ we’re having this conversation yesterday. It was the three year anniversary. Yeah, I saw that. And I was like, oh my goodness, it’s been three years. So you go back to 2021. And at three years since they passed the legislation to legalize marijuana in the state of New York. And so when you go back to three years ago, what were we dealing with in New York? We were dealing with the pandemic. We were dealing with significant protesting on all types of important issues. There’s been so much in the news cycle that unfortunately I feel like a lot of the cannabis rollout and the legalization process was never front page a one unless something catastrophic happens in the process or unless there was a major piece of legislation passed or when the applications opened. But after that, it was very much something that was thrown in a newscast here or there for 30 seconds. There was not a lot of comprehensive coverage of it because of all the pressing issues of the day. And so that’s why I felt even more responsibility to get this story and really give these people just the airtime that I felt that they deserved. They’d all been through so much and it was such a passion project for them.

TG Branfalt (10:59):

One of the other things I found interesting was the way that you framed it as this game. And because I speak to a lot of entrepreneurs, people who did get licenses, people who didn’t get licenses for a variety of reasons, and that’s a narrative that I heard over and over again that they feel like they’re sort of playing the lottery, playing a game. How did you come up with that sort of framing for the documentary of the license rollout?

Tara Rosenblum (11:25):

Are you ready for this? Absolutely. So I wear a lot of titles, but my proudest one is Mama and I have a daughter in elementary school. And this was all percolating in my brain that I really wanted to do a deep dive on this. And as I was walking through my daughter’s playroom, I saw a board game Candy Land, and at the top of it, I saw the castle and I saw a cannabis dispensary, and then I saw gummies and I’m like, edibles. And we were going to go more down that rabbit hole in our storytelling, but rightfully so, my managers and my team were like, let’s be more serious with this. This is really impacting a lot of lives. So we kind of ditched the whole, I had cartoons I was going to build in. We didn’t go down that route, but that was the genesis of how we called it cannabis contest.

TG Branfalt (12:13):

And what were some of the challenges for you not having the sort of experience covering policy or the industry and what parallels in investigative journalism helped you enter a new category of reporting that continues to serve up obstacles with no changes, with changes in policy, rule, legislation, et cetera?

Tara Rosenblum (12:31):

So as an investigative reporter, I live in data. I can’t avoid data, I can’t avoid freedom of information requests. We call ’em foil requests for people. I’m sure you’re well aware, tj, as a journalism teacher, I’m sure you’ve filed your fair share of foils in your day. We file foils every week. We have filed so many for the story, but this was one of the first investigative projects of my career where I took all the data and you know what I did with it? I kind of threw it out the window for this one. And I said, this is investigative storytelling. I really wanted our characters and not my voice to be the dominant voice in this piece. I wanted you to hear, we had just the most compelling, if we’re sticking with the game narrative players that we had selected to engage in this process with. And I gave them all the air time and I let them be the lens in which our viewers saw this whole process play out.

TG Branfalt (13:30):

And just to give listeners an idea on the length of time that goes into one of these, how long did it take you from start to finish to get this to market?

Tara Rosenblum (13:43):

What a great story, tj, because people see the half hour documentary that’s airing. It’s airing again appropriately. So on April 20th, by the way, if you missed the first one at seven 30 and 1130, so I hope people will get the chance to check it out, but a little shameless plug there for our news 12 re airings. But we, I’m sorry. Lost my, you know what? I completely lost my train of thought there, tj. We’ll do a re-edit there, but repeat the question.

TG Branfalt (14:11):

How long from,

Tara Rosenblum (14:12):

Oh, how long did it take? So I’ll start that again. It’s a great question, tj, because we, the full documentary that people see that went to our airs, and that’s airing again, by the way, for a repeat on April 20th appropriately so was a half hour show. But what people didn’t see were the hundreds and hundreds of hours of footage on our editing room floor. So we literally spent two years covering the story, two years staying in touch with our three applicants and going on dozens of shoots. And so it was very, very labor intensive to tell this story, but we didn’t want to miss a moment of action along the way. If there was a setback, if there was a success, we wanted to be there and we wanted our cameras to be rolling. And one of the beautiful silver linings of the pandemic is that we discovered zoom.

So the days when we weren’t able to be there in person, we were able to capture some of the magic over zoom. But a majority of it was us there in person from the Hudson Valley down to Queens, hyper-local in our local neighborhoods shooting this on the ground. And one of the daunting challenges for me when it came time when we finally had one of our card applicants successfully open a dispensary, we knew it was time to start editing. And I put my hands up in the air and I said, my goodness, this is going to be the challenge of my career boiling these hundreds of hours down to one 30 minute show with commercials. It’s about 22 minutes. So we were able to do it though it was difficult, but very rewarding.

TG Branfalt (15:54):

And you talked about the sort of localities, and you had mentioned that you do have people who come up to you in your role as an investigator reporter who’s on television. What other issues are you hearing from citizens about cannabis legalization in your conversations with them?

Tara Rosenblum (16:14):

So I think the one thing that I hear about all the time that’s really frustrated people are the explosion of these illegal shops. And so you see through our documentary, you learned how hard people had to fight to do this the right way. And I don’t know the count as of today, April 1st, we’re talking how many legal dispensaries there are because a few more have open since we did this documentary, but we know it’s a handful compared to the thousands of illegal shops that we know, not just down here where I live in the Tri-state, but all across the state. And so it is an issue that’s purple. We know lawmakers on both sides of the issue are upset about this. We know the governor’s upset about this. We know legislation has been proposed to tackle this, but is it going to work? That’s the next story. As journalists, we need to be along for that ride to see if it’s going to be enforced and if it’s going to do what it’s intended to do, because it is just really, really a huge detriment to the people who are doing this the right way,

TG Branfalt (17:22):

Way. And can you briefly maybe give me some insight as to your personal feelings about cannabis prior to doing this documentary?

Tara Rosenblum (17:35):

I leave, part of the reason why I think people trust us with their stories, be it cannabis or trafficking or any other societal topic we take on is I really leave my opinions out of it. And I fight really hard to do that because I want people to trust me who feel all sorts of ways about the issue. And it is such a polarizing issue in our local communities. And so I think if you watch, you referenced this earlier, if you watch my project, I hope you walk away not knowing what my personal feelings are. I pride myself on that

TG Branfalt (18:09):

And just watching it, you have these characters, you have this game narrative, if you will, which again, I think is what drives a lot of what made it really sort of fascinating in a way. Those, how did you sort of prevent yourself from editorializing? I mean, obviously you’re a professional and professional journalists don’t editorialize, but I’m sure even with the production process, the post-production process, how did you sort of walk that line? So well,

Tara Rosenblum (18:46):

And so we normally do a story as investigators, and we might work on it a few weeks or a few months. It’s rare that I spend two years

With a subject. And you could see there was a moment at the end and I debated whether to keep it in the show or not. Where you referred to Jeremy, he was the applicant that found early success in our project and was able to successfully open in Queens a few weeks ago. And you saw this moment where I walk up to him, and we had been together for two years doing this. I remember the day we met him on his front stoop and here we are. We had been there for his lowest of his lows when he thought that he couldn’t survive another day, that he didn’t have the finances to make this work after dumping everything. He had his heart, his wallet. He invested so much in this, and there were days where he was literally crying when we were interviewing him, and then we were there.

The moment that I was in, it was a great story. I was in Florida on spring break and I was supposed to not be working, of course, but my producer Jean sent me, we got the list and we found out that Jeremy was on it, and we were the ones that broke the news to him. And so I was zooming with him from my bathing suit in Sun Cap in Florida in New York, and we hopped on a quick zoom, and I’m like, Sherry, guess what? I remember it was around April. I remember saying to him, this isn’t an April Fool’s Day joke, but we found out that you made the list. And you see just his whole face. He’s like this proud macho guy, and you just saw him just completely the emotion overcome him. And it was a beautiful moment. And there we are two years later, and so I’m walking into the store and you just see us hug each other and he’s like, can you believe it’s here?

My favorite reporter? And I was like, do I keep that in? Do I not keep it in? And I kept it in because that was the realness of the journey. And so even though we’re rooting for them as characters and we care about them as people, it doesn’t mean that I have the strong opinion on the whole cannabis legalization process. Again, we were focusing on three characters and their journeys. And I think you cannot spend two years with someone who’s a really great person without rooting for them at the end. And I don’t think that makes me biased. I think it makes me real.

TG Branfalt (21:09):

I mean, it makes you human. That was a natural response. And to be honest, I noticed that very specific moment when I was watching it and I was personally touched because somebody who has that background who may not be trusting of authority and may not be trusting of the press and all these different things, I mean, it showed that he trusted you, which I think says a lot about your character and how you approach this. And the other thing I want to ask you is when I talk to people who are in this industry or have been covering this industry, we know the process. We know that it costs a million dollars and insurance policies and two months of getting rejected by landlords and so on and so forth. When you saw this process play out, as someone who didn’t know what this process is like maybe from other states, and I’ve been covering this since 2014. Oh wow. What was your reaction to this process?

Tara Rosenblum (22:12):

I think what shocked me the most was just how troubled this process was, how flawed it was, how frustrating it was. And tj, I’ll tell you, one of my early concerns between us was that, and your viewers was early on. I thought, okay, I have this great idea. I think it’s an important story to tell. Am I going to pick these three applicants and then they’re going to do a little construction, a little spackling, set up some shelves, and then they’re going to open and is that going to be an interesting documentary? I thought it was going to be this flat line, and I had no idea just the depths of the roller coaster ride. I mean from the lawsuits, from the setbacks to even early on, I remember we were with one of our applicants at a cannabis convention, a networking convention. He thought he was there to learn about mortgage and make other friends doing the same thing, and all of a sudden we’re in the hallway and he finds out that the funding that they were going to get for the setup disappeared and that the banks weren’t going to be loaning the money that they had set up.

And you had people who literally poured their last dollars and cents even to just paying for the application fee, and then they find out that they’re on their own to pay for the setup and just the trials and tribulations. I think the severity of the setbacks and the successes and how polar opposites those were, that’s what really took my breath away in this process. And that what people don’t realize, they might see a headline, oh, a dispensary opened in Queens today, or a dispensary in Westchester. But what people don’t know is the sweat that went into opening those dispensaries. It was a really intense journey. And so it was not for the faint of heart and the people who made it to the finish line were people just diehard passion for this industry. It’s not a profession, it’s a vocation.

TG Branfalt (24:12):

And to your point, somebody like Jeremy, for example, I mean, he had been incarcerated. I mean, he had started his own business. I had spoken to him a couple of weeks ago. But there is no, I mean, if this fails for these entrepreneurs, it’s game over. I mean, to keep it with the game sort of wordplay here. What surprised you most during the course of doing this documentary?

Tara Rosenblum (24:39):

I think it was that. I mean, I think it was just the severity of the setbacks. And we are seeing it now. Honestly, I just finished a documentary on the Downstate casino process, which is New York’s Gold Rush race. They’re saying it’s going to turn out to be the most lucrative economic prize ever awarded in New York State is which three casinos in the New York City area get a full scale Las Vegas style gaming license. And we’re seeing now that process drag out that now we just found out last week, it probably won’t be until 2025, the casino operators who have the world’s largest developers and gaming operators involved, and they thought that was going to happen last year. So it’s the same thing we saw with the cannabis rollout. And it’s not me editorializing here, the governor has called the process of disaster. And I thought that that was such a poignant moment when she said that. In fact, if you saw the documentary, the last line I put in the entire piece was, governor Hoel recently called to describe this process as a disaster. I don’t know how you could refer to it as anything else given the delays and the setbacks that the applicants had to go through, but hopefully now people are saying it’s better late than ever. The governor just issued a top to bottom review of the OCM. And so I think people are hoping they’re optimistic that that will finally streamline the process here.

TG Branfalt (26:12):

One of the questions that I really want to ask you, and this is more of an opportunity that I’d like to be able to share with my students. What advice would you have for young reporters who are interested in doing investigative long projects such as you’ve done in this case, and I’m sure many others

Tara Rosenblum (26:33):

Besides packing the patients? I think there’s a couple of tips I would give there. I think when we start out, and I know when I was starting out as an investigative reporter later in my career, I was always an anchor and political reporter. I always wanted to try to prove how smart I was by getting in the data. And I went and I stormed the castle and here’s my foil request and here’s a 50,000 line Excel sheet. Don’t be afraid to ditch the data sometimes and let the people tell the story, because at the end of the day, I always say, it’s not the press conference. You got to look behind the press conference and see who’s standing behind it. Those are the real, that’s the lens in which you want to tell a compelling story. So just giving up the ego and letting their sound bites tell the story. You hear very little of me in this piece. It’s the least I’ve ever put myself in a story as in cannabis contests because you just got to let those sound bites breathe. You got to let the characters tell the story.

TG Branfalt (27:39):

And what about advice for young reporters who are facing a changing regulatory legal social landscape as it not just relates to cannabis, but gambling, like you mentioned, potential psychedelic therapies that may be legalized and coming online. I mean, how are you adjusting to this sort of brave new world, if you will, and what might you tell young reporters who are also having to adjust?

Tara Rosenblum (28:04):

I think investigative is where it’s at. And I think I’m blessed to work at News 12, and my bosses are very big on hyper-local impact journalism. I say, we don’t do hit and run journalism. We don’t show up. And this is why as younger journalists pick shops that have this philosophy, we don’t just show up that old saying, if it leads, it bleeds. If there’s body bags after a tragedy or something horrific happens, that’s not the only day we’re in your community. We’re going to be that. We live here, we work here, we’re a part of the fabric of the community, so we’re going to stay on a story. In this case, it was a two year commitment. So young journalists find newsrooms who believe in investigative storytelling, who will give you the time and the bandwidth that you need to stay with a story and see it through.

And the other thing is, yeah, it’s great again to stay on your computer and Google experts and stuff like that. Get out in your communities, go out to your community boards. In this case, I found some of our applicants from going to the Harlem Business Alliance, and that’s kind of a New York City, a hubbub of where people meet and greet, and we’re working on this cannabis legalization process, the organic way and networking. So don’t stay behind your computer, go out and talk to people, join local forums and groups and stuff like that because there’s no substitute for grassroots journalism and storytelling,

TG Branfalt (29:39):

And it’s wild. We live in this big tech age where everyone sort of espouses the tools, the technological tools that we have. And you had mentioned you had struck out on social media trying to find sources, and it was the shoe leather reporting that got you the sources, which is commendable to a media studies professor who focuses on media bias and often and tells my students generally it isn’t. If it bleeds, it leads a sort of mentality. Where can people find more of your work and the cannabis contest specifically?

Tara Rosenblum (30:22):

Sure. I’ll give a little plug for our project and if anyone wants to follow my work and we’re going to continue, that’s the thing, just because the documentary aired, my reporting on the card applicants and the cannabis journey here in New York, which is first of its kind in the nation, is far from over. We stay with these stories and we want to find out where is Jeremy in a year from now? What kind of impact did those illegal shops have on him? Did he meet his projections? So we stay with stuff. So if you want to continue to follow my journey, I’m at Tara Rosenblum on Instagram and on Facebook, and the cannabis contest is airing on four 20 on News 12 regional channels and News 12 New York, and it’s also streamed because people say, if I can’t watch News 12 at home, where do I catch it? We’re also streaming on Optimum Stream, Samsung TV plus Pluto two B, Amazon Fire tv, LG Channels, local now, Vizio, tj. Is that enough places to catch us

TG Branfalt (31:23):

And more? Yeah, and more.

Tara Rosenblum (31:25):

And my best work, my most successful work has always come from people just walking up to me at the grocery store or shooting me a random message on social or email. I love the stories I get from our viewers because those are the experts of our communities.

TG Branfalt (31:44):

I’m very thankful that you are able to join me today and tell me more about the process S, excuse me, the process of producing the cannabis contest. Tara Rosenblum, she’s an investigative reporter for News 12. Cannabis Contest was released last month and will re-Air on Saturday, April 20th on News 12 regional channels and on the various streaming platforms that Tara mentioned. Thank you so much, Tara, for coming on the show today.

Tara Rosenblum (32:19):

Thank you so much for having me, and I’m going to be following your work closely. I think you did a wonderful job interviewing me, and I’m sure your students are super lucky to have you as a force in their early

TG Branfalt (32:33):

Careers. Some of them may disagree. You can find more episodes of The Ganjapreneur Podcast in the podcast section of Ganjapreneur.com and wherever you get your podcasts. On the Ganjapreneur.com website, you’ll find the latest cannabis news and cannabis jobs updated daily along with transcripts of this podcast. This episode was engineered by Wayward Sound Studio. I’ve been your host, TG Branfalt.