Weed in New York was legalized in 2021 and a whole host of unlicensed smoke shops cropped up across the state. Now that the first legal retail cannabis shop has opened in Manhattan, the city is having a heck of a time cracking down on those illegal cannabis sales.

In an oversight hearing on Jan. 18, Councilmembers Marjorie Velázquez and Gale Brewer called for stronger enforcement and regulation to the now-hundreds of stores selling illegal cannabis products.

The only licensed cannabis store in the state currently is Housing Works Cannabis, LLC in Manhattan, which has had a line out the door since it opened. Cannabis community leaders said that the rollout of the cannabis industry has been “unequitable” to the most afftected so far by centering on lower Manhattan. They testified that many cannabis shop owners are not educated about how to get licenses and are carrying the brunt of enforcement, while landlords who leased to these shop owners or sellers who market products to children receive little attention. 

“What happens to me when the sheriffs come in in my smoke shop when I have a CBD license and I’m selling appropriately what’s supposed to be sold? I don’t sell cigarettes, vapes,” said T. Montgomery, a Black man who runs a smoke shop, at the hearing. “What happens to me?”

RELATED: Shops and robberies in the years of unlicensed weed selling

Velázquez reasoned that people who were justice-involved or affected by the “war on drugs” should be respected in the cannabis industry and nothing excuses unlicensed retailers who may come from similar backgrounds. 

“The intention should be to respect the good actors— the ones who are doing right by following the letter of the law, and certainly do the arduous task of going through the licensing process and application,” said Velázquez. “We can’t keep devaluing our small businesses in their hard work and effort to build up communities versus the smoke shops that are coming in and disrespecting communities by doing it so close to schools, churches and senior centers.”

In Velázquez’s district, she said, many smoke shops have opened near schools, community spaces and houses of worship, which would be illegal if they were legally licensed cannabis shops. The proximity to schools has created opportunities for underage minors to visit these cannabis stores. 

Brewer’s office identified 22 of the 26 illicit cannabis retailers in her district as also selling psychedelics, illegal tobacco products and banned flavored e-cigarettes. She said that in one instance, a shop’s contraband was cleared out, but less than two days later, they were back to being fully stocked. Brewer said she does not wish to see shop owners end up in the criminal justice system, but enforcement has to be “routine and present” in government.

“I am concerned that the free-for-all environment will become entrenched and undermine the law’s intent before the legal market takes shape. There are public health risks such as underage use and contaminated products,” said Brewer. “There is no ambiguity in the law—it’s illegal to sell cannabis without a license, but there’s ambiguity in who can enforce it.”

New York City Sheriff Anthony Miranda works alongside the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection (DCWP), Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (NYC DOHMH), Office of Cannabis Management (OCM), and NYPD on a compliance task force that’s been put together to “weed out” illegal smoke shops.

“We continue to collaborate,” said Miranda. “I think that we are effectively working as a team, collaborating, exchanging information and personnel as needed. And we’ll continue to do these operations at various times and dates so that people know that we’re out there addressing the issue.”

Miranda testified at the hearing that there has been a huge increase in visible unlicensed cannabis shops, with more than 1,200 identified locations that need to be inspected. Their team has seized at least 15 cannabis mobile trucks, about 147,000 cannabis products and 604 pounds of cannabis since last year. Both criminal and civil violations have been issued by the interagency task force and at least 17 search warrants issued. There have been 951 complaints related to smoke shops via 311, which the police use to get information about stores. In some cases, shops are communicating with one another to avoid inspections and compliance visits, said Miranda. 

Meanwhile, there’s been an increase in robberies and violent incidents around these illicit shops at an “alarming” pace, said the NYPD. Last year, there were 593 commercial robberies of smoke shops, a 137% increase from the previous year. About 30% of the people arrested for the robberies are young adults aged 15 to 19. 

The NYPD said they offer security tips and crime prevention surveys for how owners should protect themselves. They’re also taking a direct approach to protecting store owners by parking squad cars in front of shops and tracking groups across boroughs that seem to be committing the same types of robberies in other stores. 

Ariama C. Long is a Report for America corps member and writes about politics for the Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by visiting: https://bit.ly/amnews1

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