Albany’s Robinson family wants back in the marijuana trade

ALBANY – They once ran the marijuana trade in large swaths of the city.

And as New York prepares to allow recreational cannabis sales, members of the Robinson family want to be the first in the state to legally provide the product that landed several of them in federal prison.

Not second, not third, not down the line. First.

During a 90-minute interview earlier this year, several members of the Robinson family laid out why they should have that distinction, why they believe they were unfairly targeted by the city and law enforcement, and the impact the investigation had on their family.

They plan to be among the hundreds, if not thousands, of New Yorkers who will apply later this year for one of 100 or so conditional licenses to sell recreational cannabis under the state’s plan to give those with prior marijuana convictions the first crack at a potential multi-billion-dollar market.

“My feeling is we need to be the first in the state of New York,” said former city councilman Mark Robinson. “And, well, (to those who say) ‘Mr. Robinson, why would you say the first?’ … If you do your research, I don’t think there’s any other family in New York state that have been sent to prison for (low-level) marijuana sales. Because that’s all it was.”

The family’s story is more complicated than that.

For more than a decade beginning in the early 1990s, Mark and his brothers Charles and Steven and half-brother Eddie were among those who openly sold marijuana on North Swan Street in the city’s Arbor Hill neighborhood. And while the Robinson brothers were far from the only people in the city to sell marijuana at that time, the family name had cachet — and they were brazen about their activities, including speaking with the Times Union for a May 2000 profile. (“You ever see a rainbow, and at the end of the street is the pot of gold? Well, this is the pot of gold,” Mark Robinson told reporter Brendan J. Lyons as he surveyed Swan Street.)

They knew what a felony amount of marijuana was and were rarely caught with larger amounts. While family members were investigated due to suspicions they had taken part in violence connected to their illicit business, local prosecutors were never able to convict them of violent crimes. (Steven Robinson’s criminal history includes a conviction on federal charges of using a firearm in furtherance of a drug conspiracy and of killing a bystander as he allegedly fired at a rival drug dealer – but the homicide conviction was later vacated by a federal judge who cited what he said was weak evidence.) 

And while state and local police were well aware of their activities given the number of low-level arrests the Robinsons racked up over the years, the federal government didn’t pay attention until the Times Union profiled their Swan Street enterprise and ability to evade serious charges.

In 2001, a federal task force arrested the brothers and several others. They were indicted on a number of crimes, including conspiracy to distribute marijuana, money laundering and using firearms in furtherance of those drug sales.

“They certainly seem to have perfected or at least understand New York state drug laws,” then-U.S. Attorney for the Northern District Daniel French said at the time of their arrests. “I’d like to give them a better understanding of federal drug laws.”

French declined to comment for this story. Multiple former city officials and law enforcement members who worked to prosecute the Robinsons also declined to comment.

The indictment alleged that the family had distributed more than 100 kilograms of marijuana and made more than $500,000 over a decade. They also accused Steven Robinson of killing a man Robinson was friends with in an October 2000 drive-by shooting. He was the only one who went to trial, and was convicted on all counts before having the homicide conviction overturned. The rest agreed to plea deals.

It was the final step in a years-long effort to stamp out their network.

After the brothers got out of prison, they set up another enterprise rehabilitating houses in Arbor Hill and West Hill. Like their marijuana sales, it was a family affair, an attempt to rehabilitate their legacy, Charles Robinson told the Times Union in 2013.

The investigation, subsequent media coverage and legal proceedings had left the entire family embittered. And they believe it killed their mother.

“She got sick behind every day walking into a federal courthouse and seeing these people do this to her kids,” Mark Robinson said.

Now, as New York state is poised to become one of the largest cannabis markets in the country, the Robinsons say a conditional license would be a step toward righting what they believe was an overzealous prosecution.

“I don’t want to look at it as entitlement, but it is entitlement,” Mark Robinson said. “I don’t want to look at it as reparations, but it is reparations — because you cannot undo the harm that has been done to my family.”

Steven Robinson, the smallest of the three brothers at the interview, sat in silence through most of it. When he spoke, he asked to speak off the record because of how emotional he got when talking about the impact the prosecution had on him and his family.

Charles “Obar” Robinson, the oldest brother, saw the family’s experience through the lens of Black and brown residents unfairly targeted for prosecution for a drug that was widely used in American society. His hope is that they’ll be able to leave something for their families to build on; he remains skeptical of the public promises made about righting the societal wrongs of the past.

“This has got nothing to do with us, it’s just got to do with the generation after us,” he said. “Our definition of equity doesn’t count right now. It’s the white man’s definition of equity. That’s the only thing that counts.”

There are numerous critics of the notion that the Robinsons and others with marijuana convictions should go to the head of the line to sell recreational marijuana.

Earlier this year in an interview on WAMC, Albany County District Attorney David Soares criticized the state’s proposal. “To reward people who have been at the forefront of those offenses is just, to me, breathtaking,” he said. “You’re just rewarding people who were perpetrating crimes in those communities.”

Soares declined to comment for this story.

Others have a more nuanced view of the Robinsons’ claim.

A community leader who once cleared a city park of drug dealers to make way for a children’s sports program and who pushed the city to crack down on illicit drug trade in Arbor Hill said he saw no difference between the Robinson family and Albany residents who moved from bootlegging to running the city’s political apparatus.

Aaron Mair, then the president of the Arbor Hill Concerned Citizens, recalled having a long discussion with Charles Robinson about making the park at the corner of Lark Street and Manning Boulevard a safe space. Charles Robinson later sponsored one of the baseball teams that Mair oversaw.

“Working within that context as a neighborhood association president, while not glorifying illicit activity and calling for active action (to stop it), we recognize that they were there and we did have dialogue,” he said.

Mair, who is now the campaign director for Forever Adirondacks, made no excuses for the Robinsons or others in the drug trade. Children were forced to walk through open-air drug markets. People of all ages were shot and killed.

But he sees hypocrisy in local bootleggers being romanticized because they later entered the county’s upper crust and middle class when Black residents like the Robinsons aren’t afforded similar treatment.

“While we talk about the raids, and the federal arrest of the Robinsons back when they had that dust-up with the law, it is still never matched or pales in comparison to the rigid, open corruption where literally the criminals were running the city under the O’Connells and the Corning machines,” he said, referring to the Democratic machine that ran the city for most of the 20th century.

The Robinsons harbor doubts that the state will follow through on its promises to advantage those with past convictions.

The state Office of Cannabis Management drafted an initial set of regulations that would see more than 100 conditional dispensary licenses go to individuals who had been previously convicted of marijuana offenses and who are successful business owners. Those dispensaries would be supplied exclusively by a group of New York hemp farmers who have themselves been getting conditional licenses to grow and process marijuana.

Despite skepticism as to how the state will include and support so-called “legacy” operators, the board responsible for licensing recreational marijuana businesses said it wants that to be the case.

“The Office of Cannabis Management is working hard to make the legal cannabis industry as accessible as possible to all New Yorkers, including those who have participated in the legacy market,” OCM spokesman Aaron Ghitelman previously told the Times Union when asked about specific plans for integrating veteran marijuana dealers into the new industry.

Anthony Gaddy, president of the Upstate Black Chamber of Commerce, said he was also unsure if the state’s licensing process would work to fulfill the goals it set out to meet.

“We’re trying to be cautiously optimistic and patient — but, you know, we have concerns,” he said.

Gaddy declined to talk specifically about the Robinsons but said he was aware they were planning to apply for a license. Gaddy is planning a series of discussions and events to help potential local operators. But he did say just getting a license was no guarantee of success.

“You still have to have business acumen and resources to plan the team,” he said. “As much as we’re excited about this, and I’m sure everyone is in terms of the revenue projection … if we don’t get this right, we may end up doing more harm.”

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