By Ed Hersh
They call themselves “Smoke Shops” or “Convenience Stores” … and you’ve probably noticed a new wave of them opening on Broadway, Amsterdam and Columbus.
On closer inspection, you may have also noticed that their displays inside and out seem to have less to do with sundries, drinks, snacks and cigarettes and more to do with hookahs, bongs, pipes and other kinds of paraphernalia associated with marijuana.
What you may not know: at least some of these stores are openly selling marijuana to anyone who asks for it. In fact, in at least two shops WSR visited at random, THC edibles, marijuana buds, and individual joints were displayed in full view behind the counter and in plainly-visible racks. Many of these stores have opened near schools and houses of worship.
WSR wanted to learn more about the proliferation of these stores, who is regulating them, and whether stores that are openly selling cannabis products are violating the law?
LEGAL TO USE, ILLEGAL TO SELL
Most public officials and civic leaders agree that the issue stems from a gap in the implementation of the new law. In March of 2021, New York State became the 15th state to legalize the recreational use of marijuana. It became effective immediately.
But while a network of state-regulated, made-in-New York legal dispensaries was promised under that law, more than a year later the regulations are still being developed and vetted by the state’s newly-established Office of Cannabis Management (OCM), which is tasked with regulating the state’s cannabis industry. The first legal dispensaries are not expected to open until at least the fall, according to the OCM, and some published reports in the New York Times and Gothamist say that won’t happen until the end of the year.
The new “smoke shops” and “convenience stores” and other vendors, like “weed trucks” that are selling cannabis have popped up to take advantage of that gap, and are in fact unlicensed, unregulated and illegal. They are selling products that have not been approved or vetted by the state.
Aaron Ghitelman, spokesperson for the OCM in Albany, told WSR that any store currently selling marijuana products is violating the law. “There are no licensed adult-use cannabis sales at this time in the State of New York and we will work with our partners across government to enforce the law.”
Yet there seems to be little enforcement. According to OCM’s own statistics, it has sent just 52 letters to offending businesses statewide. And in New York City, statistics provided by the NYPD show that in the first quarter of this year, there were no summonses for marijuana-related offenses of any kind issued in the 20th or 24th precincts.
On Friday, Mayor Adams signaled that he would not order a crackdown on these illegal shops. According to the Daily News, Adams – who is bullish on the economic benefits of the marijuana industry — told reporters that, “There needs to be a system of not heavy-handedness, but going in and explaining to that store that, ‘Listen, you can’t do this,’ give them a warning,” he said, while attending a Cannabis industry event at the Javits Center.
“IT’S A MESS”
Council Member Gale Brewer is among those who have taken notice. In fact, a new “smoke shop” is opening directly across from her office on Columbus Avenue. “I have received reports to my office that smoke shops and convenience stores, both locally and throughout the city, are selling cannabis, despite being unlicensed,” she told us in an email. “We have directed concerned constituents to contact the enforcement division directly at the Office of Cannabis Management.”
Community 7 Board Chair Steven Brown initially told us that “to the best of my knowledge, we have not received concerns outlined in this email (about the proliferation of smoke shops).” But in the video archives of the CB7 Business and Consumer Issues committee meetings in April and May, we discovered there have indeed been many concerns expressed and even more questions.
Among those voicing concerns In April’s meeting — which was also attended by representatives of the state’s Office of Cannabis Management — was Doug Kleiman, committee member and second vice chair of CB7. “I’m very frustrated that there are people in the neighborhood that have been opening stores and are calling themselves a dispensary; they are not licensed. They are selling cannabis,” Kleiman told the meeting. “I know at least three or four stores in this district that I can go in and purchase.” In May’s meeting, he followed up: “I’m now going into double-digits of establishments that are not licensed that are selling marijuana illegally in our neighborhood. It’s a mess.”
Steve Anderson, president of the UWS Coalition of Block Associations and Community Groups agrees. “Weed is on the UWS and we see no significant enforcement on retailing; it’s obvious and clear,” he told us in an interview. “We’ve said to ourselves, “What’s next?”
Beyond these current illegal sales, some local leaders are concerned that the yet-to-be-formalized regulations for legal dispensaries won’t include input from local residents and community boards on where they will be allowed to operate.
“There’s tremendous anxiety about what seemed to be a worthy, equitable progressive move to decriminalize the personal use of marijuana,” Anderson told us. “Hopefully regulatory forces will use the rarest of commodities — common sense — to take into account the needs of the community.”
A bill sponsored by State Senator Liz Krueger that would have toughened the state’s enforcement of illegal sales passed the Senate last week, but died in the Assembly, so the issue is apparently off the table until the next legislative session.
But, Brewer says, “the NYPD and Office of Cannabis Management must take the illicit sale of cannabis seriously. It undermines the budding legal industry and faith in the community around government’s ability to effectively regulate the industry and protect communities.”
Given the Mayor’s remarks on Friday, however, it seems unlikely the city will be targeting these stores for enforcement anytime soon.
Anyone wishing to can report illegal cannibis sales to the Office of Cannabis Management at email@example.com.