By Ed Hersh
They call themselves “Smoke Shops” or “Convenience Stores”… and you’ve probably noticed a new wave of openings in Broadway, Amsterdam and Columbus.
On closer inspection, you may also have noticed that their indoor and outdoor displays seem to have less to do with sundries, drinks, snacks and cigarettes and more to do with hookahs, bongs, pipes and other types of paraphernalia associated with marijuana.
What you might not know: At least some of these stores openly sell marijuana to anyone who asks for it. In fact, in at least two stores that WSR randomly visited, THC edibles, marijuana buds, and individual joints were prominently displayed behind the counter and in conspicuous shelves. Many of these stores have opened near schools and places of worship.
WSR wanted to know more about the proliferation of these stores, who regulates them, and whether stores that openly sell cannabis products are breaking the law?
LEGAL TO USE, ILLEGAL TO SELL
Most municipal officials and leaders agree that the problem stems from a gap in the implementation of the new law. In March 2021, New York State became the 15th state to legalize the recreational use of marijuana. It became effective immediately.
But while a network of legal, state-regulated, New York-made dispensaries has been promised under this law, more than a year later, regulations are still being worked out and vetted by the new state Office of Cannabis Management (OCM). which is responsible for regulating the state’s cannabis industry. The first legal dispensaries aren’t expected to open until at least the fall, according to the CMO, and some reports in The New York Times and Gothamist say that won’t happen until later this year.
New “smoke shops” and “convenience stores” and other vendors, such as “weed trucks” that sell cannabis, have sprung up to take advantage of this loophole and are effectively unlicensed, unregulated, and illegal. They sell products that have not been approved or checked by the state.
Aaron Ghitelman, spokesman for the CMO in Albany, told WSR that any store currently selling marijuana products is breaking the law. “There are currently no adult licensed cannabis sales in New York State and we will work with our government partners to enforce the law.”
Yet there seems to be little application. According to OCM’s own statistics, it only sent 52 letters to offending companies statewide. And in New York, statistics provided by the NYPD show that during the first quarter of this year, there were no summonses for marijuana-related offenses of any kind issued in the 20th or 24th. boroughs.
On Friday, Mayor Adams signaled that he would not order a crackdown on these illegal stores. According to the Daily News, Adams – who is optimistic about the economic benefits of the marijuana industry – told reporters that “there has to be a system that is not brutal, but comes in and explains to this store that , ‘Look, 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 “smoking room” is opening right across from his office on Columbus Avenue. “I have received reports in my office that smokehouses and convenience stores, both locally and throughout the city, are selling cannabis, despite not being licensed,” she told us in an email. “We have asked affected voters to contact the Law Enforcement Division at the Office of Cannabis Management directly.”
Community 7 Board Chairman Steven Brown first told us that “to my knowledge, we have not received the concerns outlined in this email (regarding the proliferation of smoking rooms).” But in the video archive of the CB7 Business and Consumer Committee meetings in April and May, we discovered that there were indeed many concerns expressed and even more questions.
Doug Kleiman, a committee member and second vice president of CB7, was among those who expressed concerns at the April meeting – which was also attended by representatives from the state’s Office of Cannabis Management. “I’m very frustrated that there are people in the neighborhood opening stores and calling themselves dispensaries; they are not licensed. They sell cannabis,” Kleiman said at the meeting. “I know at least three or four stores in this neighborhood that I can go and buy from.” At the May meeting, he continued, “I now go to double-digit establishments that are unlicensed and sell marijuana illegally in our neighborhood. It’s a mess.”
Steve Anderson, president of the UWS Coalition of Block Associations and Community Groups agrees. “The grass is on the UWS and we don’t see any significant retail application; it’s obvious and clear,” he told us in an interview. “We were like, ‘What’s next?’
Beyond these current illegal sales, some local leaders are concerned that regulations yet to be formalized for legal dispensaries will not include input from local residents and community councils on where they will be allowed to operate.
“There is enormous anxiety about what appears to be a dignified and fair progressive move to decriminalize the personal use of marijuana,” Anderson told us. “Let’s hope that regulatory forces will use the rarest of products – common sense – to take into account the needs of the community.”
A bill sponsored by State Senator Liz Krueger that would have strengthened state enforcement of illegal sales passed the Senate last week but died in the Assembly, so the issue is apparently irrelevant until the next legislative session.
But, says Brewer, “The NYPD and the Office of Cannabis Management need to take the illicit sale of cannabis seriously. This undermines the nascent legal industry and community confidence 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 target those stores for enforcement anytime soon.
Anyone who wishes can report illegal cannibis sales to the Office of Cannabis Management at [email protected]