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How legal weed is changing New York City’s vibe (and smell)



Waiters glided between tables outside a small Italian restaurant in the still-roasting Brooklyn evening sun. Plates empty, conversation meandering, I leaned back in my chair and got the first inkling that I was losing my mind.

The trigger had been innocuous enough: a small, piña colada-flavoured gummy popped just after dinner at the encouragement of a well-meaning friend. She’d hoped, reasonably enough, that a little weed-infused edible would enhance my experience of the concert we were heading to next. Now, with what felt like an industrial-grade concentration of marijuana’s active ingredient, THC, coursing through my bloodstream (I later learnt it was one of the smallest doses it is possible to buy in a single edible product), my hair was exploding into a sweaty bouffant, and I had all but left Planet Earth.

The experience lasted for the duration of the two-hour show that June night and required me to sit ignominiously in the dirt of Prospect Park doing my best not to pass out. As a thousand tweens swirled joyfully around us, my friends patted me reassuringly on the head while exchanging looks of concern as if I were a senior citizen who had wandered into a rave.

I’ve had my share of encounters with London parties over the years, but nine months after relocating to New York in my early thirties — and well into my hedonistic retirement — it hadn’t crossed my mind that a small yellow sweet would be my undoing. My gummy faux-pas turned out to be emblematic of several jarringly broad cultural gaps I have stumbled upon since moving across the Atlantic, from the well-documented differences in humour and language to less predictable wrinkles in politics and taste, even among generally like-minded peers.

Sunflowers in a New York park. The city’s weed scene is also blossoming © Nathan Bajar

People enjoying the evening sun on the waterfront in Brooklyn
Enjoying the late sun on the waterfront © Nathan Bajar

Weed came to symbolise a deeper chasm between our worlds, and one that, having never taken more than a few puffs in my life, made me feel slightly shamefully out of place. Most Americans are familiar with the UK’s quasi-pathological relationship with alcohol, but I was unprepared for their equivalent: the colleagues who routinely “popped a gummy” as soon as they got home from work; friends who take trips to legal out-of-state dispensaries to replenish their dwindling stashes; the tasteful little receptacles you find in grown-up, mid-century-furnished Brooklyn apartments.

As it happened, the blossoming of New York’s weed scene coincided neatly with my arrival. On March 31 2021, then-governor Andrew Cuomo signed a bill into law that made it legal for people over the age of 21 to smoke marijuana and for licensed businesses to sell it, ending decades of frustration on the left and bringing the state into line with 15 others that had done the same.

On my first trip north out of the city that October, I was staggered to see huge road signs reading “Don’t drive high”, an advisory that to me would feel so redundant in genteel Britain it might as well say “Don’t drive blindfolded”. “There’s this weird assumption in the UK that you grow out of weed,” a thirtysomething New York friend and gummy aficionado told me when I asked her to explain marijuana’s differing presence in our cultures. “That isn’t really a thing here.”

When I’ve talked to friends from home about my New York experience, the expression that has most readily come to mind is “uncanny valley” — a term originally used in aesthetic philosophy to describe the unease people feel when they encounter humanoid robots that resemble them closely but imperfectly.

When I arrived in New York, I was struck by how similar it was to London, but always just a degree out, from the anachronistic transportation system to the relative lack of complaining about the (arguably more irksome) weather. The thing that hit me most immediately and viscerally, though, was the smell — that inimitable, fruity aroma of marijuana, which seemingly pervades every street corner, grocery store, apartment building and public park in New York but is barely detectable across vast swaths of London (Camden Market and the Notting Hill Carnival being notable exceptions).

Picnic-goers beneath trees in a New York park
Picnic-goers in New York © Nathan Bajar

Data for cannabis consumption globally is scarce, complicating comparisons between countries. But the most recent figures from the US Centers for Disease Control, from 2019, show that 18 per cent of Americans said they had used marijuana at least once during that year. According to the UK’s Office for National Statistics, in March 2021 just 5.8 per cent of British adults aged 18 to 59 reported using the drug in the previous year.

For New York City, the last data point on recreational cannabis use from the NYC Department of Health was from 2015-16, before the drug was legalised, indicating that 16 per cent of New Yorkers said they had smoked weed in the past year, up from 13 per cent in 2003-04. According to Grand View Research, New York’s cannabis market is expected to be worth more than $7bn by 2025. If the smell is anything to go by, it’s already well on its way. At a press conference outside New York’s City Hall in July, mayor Eric Adams told reporters with a laugh: “The number one thing I smell [in the city] is pot. It’s like everybody is smoking a joint now.”

The ascent of weed in New York marks a new chapter in the city’s relationship with drugs, which has largely mirrored the ebb and flow of economic and cultural forces. If the trading-floor cocaine of the 1980s and the club kid ecstasy of the 1990s gave way to the less visible ravages of the opioid epidemic, the New York that has emerged from the pandemic is something else again: a weed town, diminished by collective trauma but furtively remaking itself.

In a bid to understand the hold that marijuana has on post-legalisation New York, I head one sweaty Tuesday in July to the place I most associate with the weed crowd: Washington Square Park in Lower Manhattan. The little quadrangle has long served as a hub for Manhattan’s unofficial pot business, hosting a growing array of independent sellers.

A young man and woman in goth/street clothing sitting down in a New York park
A young couple in a New York park © Nathan Bajar

View of a skyscraper through trees
The city’s relationship with drugs has ‘largely mirrored the ebb and flow of economic and cultural forces’ © Nathan Bajar

Despite the fact that no sales licences have yet been issued in New York, and the state has sent out 52 cease-and-desist letters to unlicensed outlets so far, the mostly young, male vendors appear cheerfully unfazed by passing police officers. “Pre-rolls, edibles, flowers!” a man in cartoonishly baggy shorts calls out from behind plastic tables groaning under marijuana-related wares.

If the sellers are troubled by anything, it is journalists. When I approach a man with a brightly coloured beard manning one of the stalls, he politely declines my request for an interview and warns me that other vendors may not be so friendly. “We’ve been getting a lot of heat because of the media attention,” he says disapprovingly.

Across the park on a bench under a copse, I meet Gabriel, a 17-year-old from Florida with a giant plume of frizzy mouse-brown hair. He tells me he just bought two pre-rolled joints in the park for $15, which he declares a “pretty good” price. “Miami doesn’t have legal weed,” he says thickly between tokes. “There’s so much more smoking here.”

Despite the slow rollout of licensing in the state, the cannabis industry has been betting on legalisation in New York for years. Some of the biggest weed companies in the US have set up shop in the city already, offering medicinal marijuana and other products containing legal derivatives in anticipation of eventually gaining permission to sell the real thing.

A man with a towel on his head sitting in the sun on a bench in a New York park
© Nathan Bajar

In midtown Manhattan that afternoon, I drop by a sleek dispensary called MedMen, which has been on Fifth Avenue since 2018. Part of an upscale chain whose minimalist outlets appear to be modelled on Apple stores, the shop is adorned with racks of red-and-white branded hoodies and track jackets, while huge display tables with inset lights offer details of its range of high-end products (Wellness Gel capsules, $50 a pack; Releaf Hemp Infused Balm, $79.99).

Parked haphazardly around the nearby streets, meanwhile, are at least half a dozen green trucks belonging to a scrappier-looking outfit called Weed World, emblazoned with advertisements for items such as “trippy treats” and “potcorn”. Weed World’s owner, who goes by Dr Dro, tells me later that the company began retailing weed-related products here a little over four years ago, though he insists they are within the legal limit for THC. Legalisation, he claims, has led to a flood of upstart competitors who are often less diligent about toeing the legal line: “The biggest difference [has] been more street vendors. People setting up tables and cannabis stores popping up.”

Picnic-goers in a Brooklyn park
An August evening in a New York park © Nathan Bajar

When I stop at a Weed World truck on Fifth Avenue, the sales assistant at its open window wobbles alarmingly in her chair and says she’s “too high right now” for an interview. I have more luck with Chee, an 18-year-old in another Weed World truck a few blocks down, who also appears pretty high but is compos mentis enough to sustain a short conversation. “I feel like for a while weed was thought of as something that wasn’t OK, like a ‘drug’ drug,” she says when I ask how the scene has changed in the past year. “But now that it’s legalised, people just see it like alcohol.”

New York is by no means the capital of America’s weed culture. In February, I found myself walking in the warm spring sun along the boardwalk of Venice Beach, California, where recreational cannabis use has been legal since 2016, picking my way through a string of makeshift stalls selling bongs and Bob Marley knick-knacks. According to the California Department of Public Health, the number of adults who said they’d used cannabis in the previous month in the state jumped from 10.8 per cent in 2015-16 to 15.1 per cent in 2019-20.

It struck me there that perhaps weed, like alcohol, is a modern inevitability. That any culture facing a climate emergency, decaying public institutions and seemingly irreconcilable political differences will eventually turn to its most widely available sedatives. In May, London’s centre-left mayor Sadiq Khan announced he had appointed a drug tsar tasked with reviewing the UK’s substance abuse laws, arguing, after touring a cannabis factory in Los Angeles, that “the illegal drugs trade causes huge damage to our society”.

But something in the uniquely anxiety-inducing nature of life in New York City, from the apocalyptic concentration of rats to the spiralling housing costs, seems to lend itself to seeking a means of chilling out. “I think more people are smoking weed to escape the reality of the truth, every day facing life,” a man called Jonathan told me in Washington Square Park, holding a spliff of such girth it brought to mind Withnail and I’s “Camberwell carrot”. “They use the drug to escape.”

For the final stop on my weed tour, I head across the Hudson river west of Manhattan into the leafy suburb of Maplewood in New Jersey, a state generally better known for commuters than cannabis. But since the state legalised recreational marijuana last year, Maplewood is now home to one of the handful of dispensaries licensed to sell it, and therefore an unlikely mecca for weed-lovers making pilgrimages across the river.

An imposing white building on an otherwise sleepy street, The Apothecarium is humming with activity when I approach, as a surprising range of customers — I spot several elderly couples — streams through its doors. After being allowed in by an imperious security team wielding ID scanners like nightclub bouncers, I find myself in a lavish space that has the feel of a stoner concept store, dotted with tastefully presented weed products as far as the eye can see. I buy a small $30 pack of sour- watermelon-flavoured edibles and head back to New York to sample them, hoping that this time I can crack the dose necessary to match my lamentable tolerance.

Sitting on the roof of my Brooklyn apartment building in the low evening sun, I carefully tear one of the sweets in half and pop it in my mouth. For a few minutes, nothing. Then, slowly, a rising heat. A curious feeling of separation from space and time. And gently pervading it all, a deep sense that everything is going to be just fine.

India Ross is an FT news editor in New York

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Sister Patricia Daly, 66, Dies; Took On Corporate Giants on Social Justice



For years, Sister Pat and other environmentalists had urged ExxonMobil to take significant steps to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions from its operations and products. In 2007, she proposed a resolution that called on that energy giant to set a firm date to report on its progress.

“We’re the most profitable company in the history of the planet,” she told Rex Tillerson, then the company’s chief executive (and later secretary of state in the Trump administration), at the company’s annual meeting, “but what will be our long-term health when we are really faced with the regulatory and other challenges around global warming?”

She added: “We are now, this company and every single one of us, challenged by one of the most profound moral concerns. And we have the wherewithal to respond to that.”

The proposal won 31 percent of the ballots, or about 1.4 billion shares, the largest tally for an ExxonMobil climate-change resolution. If not an outright victory, it was a page in a decades-long narrative that led ExxonMobil to put a climate scientist on its board in 2017. Three executives who recognized the urgency to address climate change joined the company’s board in 2021, nominated by a tiny activist hedge fund, Engine No. 1.

“The arc of her work led us to those victories by working from the inside and the outside,” John Passacantando, the founder of Ozone Action, an anti-global warming group, and a former executive director of Greenpeace, said in a phone interview.

In 1999, Vanity Fair named her to its Hall of Fame, applauding her as one who “translates belief into commitment and never backs down from a fight.”

Mary Beth Gallagher, who replaced Sister Pat as executive director of the Tri-State Coalition in 2017, said Sister Pat had not become frustrated when her resolutions were routinely voted down.

“She lived in hope,” Ms. Gallagher said. “We never talked about winning or losing. It was about raising consciousness and educating. If we’re not asking these questions, who will?”

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Families can make a tax-free rollover from 529 plans to Roth individual retirement accounts starting in 2024



Maskot | Maskot | Getty Images

Americans who save for college in 529 plans will soon have a way to rescue unused funds while keeping their tax benefits intact.

A $1.7 trillion government funding package has a provision that lets savers roll money from 529 plans to Roth individual retirement accounts free of income tax or tax penalties.

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The House passed the measure Friday and the Senate did so Thursday. The bill heads to President Biden, who’s expected to sign it into law.

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The rollover measure — which takes effect in 2024 — has some limitations. Among the largest: There’s a $35,000 lifetime cap on transfers.

“It’s a good provision for people who have [529 accounts] and the money hasn’t been used,” said Ed Slott, a certified public accountant and IRA expert based in Rockville Centre, New York.

That might happen if a beneficiary — such as a child or grandchild — doesn’t attend a college, university, vocational or private K-12 school, or other qualifying institution, for example. Or, a student may receive scholarships that mean some 529 funds are left over.

Millions of 529 accounts hold billions in savings

There were nearly 15 million 529 accounts at the end of last year, holding a total $480 billion, according to the Investment Company Institute. That’s an average of about $30,600 per account.

529 plans carry tax advantages for college savers. Namely, investment earnings on account contributions grow tax-free and aren’t taxable if used for qualifying education expenses like tuition, fees, books, and room and board.

Retirement plan changes in the omnibus spending bill

However, that investment growth is generally subject to income tax and a 10% tax penalty if used for an ineligible expense.

This is where rollovers to a Roth IRA can benefit savers with stranded 529 money. A transfer would skirt income tax and penalties; investments would keep growing tax-free in a Roth account, and future retirement withdrawals would also be tax-free.  

Some think it’s a handout for the rich

However, some critics think the rollover policy largely amounts to a tax handout to wealthier families.

“You’re giving savings incentives to those who can save and leaving behind those who cannot save,” said Steve Rosenthal, a senior fellow at the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center.

A 2012 analysis conducted by the Government Accountability Office found the typical American with a 529 account had “much more wealth” than someone without: $413,500 in total wealth for the median person, about 25 times the amount of a non-accountholder.

You’re giving savings incentives to those who can save and leaving behind those who cannot save.

Steve Rosenthal

senior fellow at the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center

Further, the typical owner had a roughly $142,000 annual income versus $45,000 for other families, the GAO report said. Almost half, 47%, had incomes over $150,000.

The new 529-to-Roth IRA transfer provision doesn’t carry income limits.

Limitations on 529-to-IRA transfers

While the new tax break primarily benefits wealthier families, there are “pretty significant” limitations on the rollovers that reduce the financial benefit, Jeffrey Levine, a certified financial planner and certified public accountant based in St. Louis, said in a tweet.

The restrictions include:

  • A $35,000 lifetime cap on transfers.
  • Rollovers are subject to the annual Roth IRA contribution limit. (The limit is $6,500 in 2023.)
  • The rollover can only be made to the beneficiary’s Roth IRA — not that of the account owner. (In other words, a 529 owned by a parent with the child as beneficiary would need to be rolled into the child’s IRA, not the parent’s.)
  • The 529 account must have been open for at least 15 years. (It seems changing account beneficiaries may restart that 15-year clock, Levine said.)
  • Accountholders can’t roll over contributions, or earnings on those contributions, made in the last five years.

In a summary document, the Senate Finance Committee said current 529 tax rules have “led to hesitating, delaying, or declining to fund 529s to levels needed to pay for the rising costs of education.”

“Families who sacrifice and save in 529 accounts should not be punished with tax and penalty years later if the beneficiary has found an alternative way to pay for their education,” it said.

Are 529 plans already flexible enough?

Some education savings experts think 529 accounts have adequate flexibility so as not to deter families from using them.

For example, owners with leftover account funds can change beneficiaries to another qualifying family member — thereby helping avoid a tax penalty for non-qualified withdrawals. Aside from a kid or grandkid, that family member might be you; a spouse; a son, daughter, brother, sister, father or mother-in-law; sibling or step-sibling; first cousin or their spouse; a niece, nephew or their spouse; or aunt and uncle, among others.

Owners can also keep funds in an account for a beneficiary’s graduate schooling or the education of a future grandchild, according to Funds can also be used to make up to $10,000 of student loan payments.

The tax penalty may also not be quite as bad as some think, according to education expert Mark Kantrowitz. For example, taxes are assessed at the beneficiary’s income-tax rate, which is generally lower than the parent’s tax rate by at least 10 percentage points.

In that case, the parent “is no worse off than they would have been had they saved in a taxable account,” depending on their tax rates on long-term capital gains, he said.

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Goldman grumbling grows for banking giant to sack CEO David Solomon



The knives are out for Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon, and this time the people brandishing them aren’t the usual suspects — his junior staffers annoyed that they have to work late or come into the office several times a week.

Solomon’s problems are more serious and existential, I am told, and how he handles what can best be described as a revolt in some quarters of Goldman’s middle and upper management ranks could determine how much longer he stays in his job.

Solomon, 60, took the job in 2018 and was always somewhat of an odd choice to run the white-shoe investment bank that usually cultivated its leaders from within. He cut his teeth at a decidedly un-Goldman-like venue: the scrappy investment bank Bear Stearns (ultimately one of the causalities of the 2008 financial crisis).

He joined Goldman in 1999, as a partner, no less, because his deal-making chops allowed him to skip layers of management.

In other words, Solomon is an outsider at a firm with a wickedly insular culture. He has a quirky side gig as a DJ in the summer Hamptons party circuit. He’s also not one for small talk, and doesn’t consult with a lot of people before handing down his edicts. 

“He doesn’t breed a lot of love,” said one former Goldman executive who knows Solomon well.

Lots of people at Goldman don’t like him, and they’re letting their views be heard both internally and with pals at rival firms.

Solomon as a DJ
Solomon is an outsider at a firm with a wickedly insular culture.
David Solomon/Instagram

For the record: I’ve met Solomon and like him for his no-BS style. And until pretty recently, the numbers show him doing a great job. Goldman was running on all cylinders in deals and trading. Even as the market corrects, shares are up about 60% since Solomon took over as CEO in 2018 compared to around a 44% rise in the S&P during that time.

Goldman is still the top M&A shop, even widening its market share over rivals in that important business line. Solomon was the first among his fellow CEOs to see the downturn and enact significant layoffs to cut costs.

Still, the grumbling about Solomon is spreading to the managing director and partner class. High-priced Wall Street talent don’t call all the shots at any firm, of course. But Goldman’s MDs and partners have historically been a powerful force when the board decides the fate of current management, which makes Solomon’s hold on his job increasingly precarious as more and more of them defect from his camp.

David Solomon as a DJ
Solomon was the first among his fellow CEOs to see the downturn and enact significant layoffs to cut costs.
David Solomon/Instagram

Here’s how they’re building a case against him: Goldman’s longtime archrival investment bank Morgan Stanley now easily dwarfs Goldman in market value, $144 billion to $116 billion, continuing a trend that predates Solomon. That comes amid a slowdown in banking deals, Goldman’s bread-and-butter business, and Solomon’s home turf.

Morgan’s CEO James Gorman deftly expanded the firm’s wealth management operations, which provide steady revenues. Solomon’s effort to diversify was an overindulgence in something called Marcus, a digital retail bank launched by his predecessor Lloyd Bankfein that Solomon made his baby. So far, it’s been a disaster, so much so that Solomon has been forced to scale back, possibly on the way to winding it down.

Goldman, meanwhile, has missed targets in its recent earnings announcements, and more downward surprises could be in store as markets continue to wobble. Bonuses are down, in some places cut in half, albeit from the nosebleed levels of 2021.

Goldman Sachs headquarters
The grumbling about Solomon is spreading to the managing director and partner class.
AFP via Getty Images

Traders did well in 2022 because Goldman’s are particularly adept in profiting off turbulence, but part of their pool is being diverted to bankers to keep them in-house until the deal slowdown ends.

Since Solomon is a banker, he’s also being accused of favoritism, which in truth is a pretty lame charge, since bankers often subsidize trader bonuses when the markets aren’t profitable. Still, the Goldman trading department is powerful and can spark management change, as it has done in the past.

There’s also a question about Solomon’s allegiance to Goldman’s stand-alone culture. In its 153-year existence, Goldman has operated on the assumption that it would be the acquirer in any major strategic acquisition. Solomon’s experience at Bear, then one of the most transactional places on Wall Street, means he could be looking for a deal and not one that keeps Goldman in charge.

Morgan Stanley CEO James Gorman deftly expanded the firm’s wealth management operations, which provide steady revenues.
Morgan Stanley’s James Gorman deftly expanded the firm’s wealth management operations, which provide steady revenues.
AFP via Getty Images

At a time when most Goldman insiders believe he needs to do a “transformational deal,” i.e., something big that allows it to better compete against Morgan Stanley and super banks like JP Morgan, there is speculation that Solomon might allow Goldman to be swallowed whole by, say, a big asset manager or bank if the price was right.

As best I can tell, this grumbling, though real, doesn’t immediately threaten Solomon’s job. Then again, there is something to be said for keeping your producers happy.

Jack Welch, the legendary CEO of General Electric, was a notorious screamer and demanding beyond belief. Yet Welch knew how to nurture his people.

Former General Electric CEO Jack Welch
Jack Welch was a notorious screamer and demanding beyond belief. Yet Welch knew how to nurture his people.
Getty Images

“Jack could chew your ass, then put his arm around you and make you feel great,” one of his longtime executives, Bob Nardelli, once told me.

It’s why so many other talented execs chose to stay around under Welch, abuse and all, and left when his successor took over, watching GE implode from the outside.

Maybe it’s a good time for Solomon to take a page from Welch and start hugging it out.

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