Change Makers: Black cannabis dispensary owner looks to help community through social entrepreneurship

Published: Feb. 28, 2023 at 11:42 AM EST
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BINGHAMTON (WBNG) -- February is Black History Month and all month long, WBNG has been highlighting “change makers” from the Southern Tier.

For the final week, 12 News went to downtown Binghamton to talk to the man behind the first recreational cannabis dispensary in Upstate New York and learn more about his vision for it in the community.

Damien Cornwell is born and raised in Binghamton. He has worked in non-profits, various businesses, radio and now in cannabis.

He said around 2007 he decided he wanted to be a social entrepreneur.

“You find the things that are wrong in society, then you figure out if you can create different companies or organizations that can generate the revenue that can support the actions that rid society of some of the things that might be wrong,” said Cornwell.

For him, the mission to help his community is a personal one.

“I have a really large family and I’ve seen a lot of decline,” said Cornwell. “I’ve seen a lot of folks go through hard times and in towns like Binghamton, they’re actually in decline since we lost big manufacturing and some businesses back in the day. This is not a place where if you are a young professional you look to stay.”

Cornwell wants to change that, which is his motivation behind businesses like Just Breathe.


“Number one: They kind of reactivate the culture,” said Cornwell. “Number two: It gives more opportunity. Anytime you have more commerce it’s going to give more opportunity not even just for us, but for the other ancillary businesses that are around us.”

Just Breathe is the first recreational cannabis dispensary outside of Manhattan and the third in the Empire State.

“We’re the first [in the Southern Tier] so you want to make sure you dot every I and cross every T,” said Cornwell. “You don’t want to have an ‘oops’ moment or have people have bad experiences here because you are setting a precedent not only for ourselves but for our community as a whole and even the state.”

From the beginning, Cornwell’s goal has been to help people and communities impacted by the criminalization of marijuana. When the shop first opened as a CBD store last year, opening day, they helped 17 people start the process of expunging their records through a workforce initiative grant.

“We use the fabric of CBD, cannabis, the whole nine yards as a common denominator to pull people together and once we got them here folks signed up to get their records cleaned and we were able to take action after that and help get people jobs,” said Cornwell. “That would have never happened if I had a sneaker shop, that would have never happened if I was making T-shirts, but it did happen because we were the first place opening up with a CBD store down here at that moment. So that helped. It created a lot of attention and sure enough, we were able to do something good with it, that’s really cool.”

Just Breathe is operated in partnership with the Broome County Urban League, bringing in more funding for the non-profit.

“Any and all efforts made to make the organization more robust give it the resources it needs to do more good,” said Cornwell. “More backpacks, more scholarships for kids, more food for after-school care, more counselors so we can support more families. That’s why social entrepreneurship is so cool a concept; creating different initiatives that can help generate money in a private and nonprofit arena and then you find a pathway to actually make the changes without hurting your tax base and ultimately, it’s better for your community.”

He said the significance of the story opening during Black History Month is not lost on him.

“It’s all the more reason why as an African American business owner it’s so important for me to make sure that we set a great example for others behind me,” said Cornwell. “I won’t be here forever, so the question is how can I change the outcome for folks behind me, and that’s really the key you want to leave the world better than how you found it.”

Cornwell said he has a number of ideas for the future of Just Breathe including creating a comedy club on-site. He also is an owner of the Cameo Theater and has a goal of making that location the first cannabis-legal theater in the state that would bring talent from across the country to the Southern Tier.

Just Breathe is located at 75 Court St. in downtown Binghamton.

To read last week’s story about a Binghamton University Professor of Africana Studies of more than 30 years click here.

To read the story on an annual Black History Month educational event click here.

And to read the story on Claude and Beccye Fawcett, who were pillars of the Binghamton Black community, click here.