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‘It’s like a calling’: Inside an Ozone Park resident’s journey from convicted felon to legal cannabis shop owner in Astoria

Jul. 24, 2023 By John Schilling

When 29-year-old Jeremy Rivera stood before a judge in Queens County Court on Aug. 8, 2016, he was sentenced to two years in Gouverneur Correctional Facility in Upstate New York for a non-violent crime: possession of a controlled substance in the third degree.

Prior to his arrest, Rivera was in possession of marijuana or cannabis, something that wouldn’t become legal in New York until several years later and something that remains a hot-button issue today. 

Rivera, now a three-time felon from various past drug charges, went off to prison to serve his sentence and looked to the future, not knowing then that his conviction would be the key to his future success.

cannabis

Terp Bros, a marijuana dispensary, will open on Ditmars Boulevard in Astoria next month.Photo by Jason Colon

Almost seven years later, Rivera, 36, is now a justice-involved and Conditional Adult-Use Retail Dispensaries (CAURD) provisional license awardee from the New York State Office of Cannabis Management. Next month, Rivera plans to open Terp Bros, his own marijuana dispensary, on Ditmars Boulevard in Astoria, something he never imagined doing just a few years ago when he came home from prison. 

“I wasn’t trying to get into the industry,” Rivera said. “I had no intention, being a three-time felon, ever getting back into selling a controlled substance.”

That all changed one day when Rivera, now an Ozone Park resident, reconnected with an old friend while walking down the street near his house. After serving his sentence, Rivera found success in construction, becoming an Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) instructor and starting his own consulting business. 

Both Rivera’s checkered past and post-incarceration success caught his friend’s attention, prompting him to tell Rivera about the CAURD licensing program and how applicants needed both a cannabis-related offense that occurred prior to the passage of the Marijuana Regulation and Tax Act (MRTA) in March 2021 and business ownership experience in New York in order to qualify. Rivera was skeptical. 

“I didn’t honestly believe him at first,” Rivera said. “I didn’t think it was something that was going to pan out.”

Shortly after, Rivera and his friend pursued the opportunity, visiting lawyers for advice and realizing that Rivera had the qualifications to make his application a priority over others. As things started to fit into place, Rivera became more infatuated with the idea.

“I really gravitated toward it,” Rivera said. “It was something about the reform and the justice involvement for people like myself to be awarded a second chance and have the ability to actually show improved change. It was something I fell in love with.”

Despite Rivera’s qualifications, however, the process soon proved to be far from easy. With applications opening last August and the first rollout of licenses set for late 2022, Rivera was eager to be among the first called so much so that he opted to leave his full-time construction, but the call didn’t come. Rivera then refocused his optimism to the second round of rollouts, but he was ultimately passed up again. 

“When the first rollout happened and we didn’t get it, it was like a huge blow to the gut,” Rivera said. “And then the second one rolled around and we didn’t get it, it was like an uppercut to the chin.”

As a result, Rivera’s optimism turned into doubt and indifference, but this all subsided earlier this year in April when Rivera was one of 99 people across the state awarded a CAURD provisional license, allowing him to open a dispensary.

When the news first broke, Rivera was at home with friends, including his business partner Al Cottone and Al’s wife Melissa. Today, Rivera still remembers vividly the “time-stopping” moment he received the email with the news.

“We just all stopped and looked at it,” Rivera said. “We looked at each other, we got emotional. There was some crying, some yelling, some screaming, a couple of hugs … it was cool.”

To make the dispensary a reality, Rivera now had to find the perfect spot. Originally from Bushwick, Rivera was raised in south Queens and looked all over the borough for a place to open his dispensary. Eventually, a real estate broker showed them the vacant storefront at 36-10 Ditmars Blvd., and Rivera “fell in love” with the location.

Since then, Rivera and his partners have worked to transform the spot and make Terp Bros a reality. But for Rivera, it is less about the green — whether it be the money or the cannabis — and more about using the business to provide second chances to people.

“For people who are in my position or have been in my position … it gets very difficult to make that change, to actually create the change and break the recidivism and do something positive,” Rivera said. “I was able to do it with construction, and at that point, I tried to show as many people that were in my position the possibilities of actually getting a good career and being able to do something and support a family without having to go to drugs, gangs, robberies and all that other stuff.”

In support of this mission, the Terp Bros team hosted “a cannabis career fair” earlier this month, inviting people to interview for job positions at the future dispensary ranging from budtenders and security to fulfillment and runners. Over 100 people lined up on Ditmars Boulevard with resumes in hand.

“For what we wanted it to be, it exceeded 100 times over,” Rivera said. “I’m happy we were able to do it and show the community in Astoria that this is the positives of legal cannabis, and this is what legal cannabis brings.”

In the weeks since, the Terp Bros team has reached out to 45 of approximately 100 people that showed up for a second interview. Of those 45 people, 23 will be hired to fill the different openings at the dispensary, which is set to open sometime during the second week of August.

About 100 people lined up on Ditmars Boulevard outside Terp Bros on July 14 to interview for jobs at the future dispensary.Photo by Jason Colon

Of the 100 people interviewed, only 23 will be hired for the new dispensary.Photo by Jason Colon

Looking back at how far he’s come, Rivera credits the hard work it took to get to this moment, as well as his faith.

“For everything the Lord has blessed me with up until this point, it would be sin for me not to go as much and as far as I could and bring as many people as I can up with me,” Rivera said. “It’s hard, but for some of us, we’ll be able to pave the way. We’ll be able to show other people that it’s possible, and while we’re doing it, we’ll probably be able to bring a handful of families and their generations with us to be successful.”

“It’s like a calling,” Rivera added. “I have to do it.”

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