Insights about the executive director of the Office of Cannabis Management were recently revealed by Mychal Denzel Smith in an article in New York Magazine. For us Finger Lakers who operate in what seems like a galaxy far, far away from the beating heart of the OCM, Smith’s observations help humanize the-guy-on-high writing our rules.
Chris Alexander grew up in the Hollis neighborhood of Queens, the son of immigrants from Grenada in the West Indies. The group of islands comprise one of the smallest independent countries in the western hemisphere.
Although cannabis plays a big role in Caribbean culture, Alexander’s dad, a postal worker, was against it.
Today, Alexander resides in Queens. The OCM offices are in New York’s Financial District.
His extended family in New York is large and cohesive. Cousin Fe Noel, the womenswear designer known for her flowy, shiny, and luxurious looks, runs her studio in Brooklyn – in the basement of her mother’s daycare-center business. Noel’s designs have been worn by Beyoncé, Michelle Obama, Katy Perry and Gabrielle Union.
Cousin Chris is no fashion slouch. “The Hollis native was dressed to project polished but relaxed, serious but approachable, in a purple gingham dress shirt with the sleeves partially rolled up, fitted navy slacks but no blazer, an inconspicuous yet elegant rectangle-dial watch, and an enviably fresh haircut and shave with a smart goatee,” describes Smith, who observed Alexander presiding over a public forum.
Noel nicknamed Alexander “Mr. President.” She told Smith that despite being the youngest boy, Chris took the lead in his cousins’ childhood games and negotiated sleepovers with their parents.
After graduating from Syracuse University with a degree in political science, Alexander got his JD from CUNY School of Law. Since then, he’s put his leadership skills to good use for criminal justice reform, advocacy, and the framing of policy.
The War on Drugs hit close to home. “I had a very close family member get arrested for a serious-level drug offense,” he told Smith. “It became very clear to me that there are rules that apply here in Queens that don’t apply in places like Syracuse.”
As a coordinator with the Drug Policy Alliance, he orchestrated the Start SMART NY campaign to end marijuana prohibition in New York and was the lead drafter of MRTA. Before he headed the OCM, Alexander was the government relations and policy manager at Village Brands, the largest Black owned and operated multistate cannabis company in the country,
Yes, he smokes weed, Alexander told Smith, but not every week. No, it was not a prerequisite for the job.
To the detriment of big companies and venture capitalists, Alexander has set places for justice-involved players and legacy growers at a table where equity is the centerpiece. Not only does the state want those people involved in the cannabis industry, it needs them to be, Alexander told Smith. “We need everybody in New York with cannabis knowledge to participate in the market.”
He’s not naïve. “There’s the understanding that this is difficult. There’s the understanding that this is new. There’s the understanding that this is something that hasn’t been done before,” he told Smith about the respect he’s earned by building a state agency from the ground up. “Of course, there’s also the understanding that if we take too long or we have a big misstep, we might lose some of that goodwill.”