April 20 marked the first “4/20” since legal recreational cannabis dispensaries hit the “Big Apple.” But roughly five months since the first Manhattan location opened, licensed shops are still devoid north of 42nd Street. 

Vladimir Bautista, co-founder of Latino-owned cannabis lifestyle brand Happy Munkey, says the lack of licensed recreational dispensaries uptown means Harlemites are stuck choosing between a long commute or just buying from an unlicensed seller. 

“The reality is that if you are [far] away and you go on the site and there’s this…new cannabis space but [if] you [need] to drive [far], most people are not going to do that,” he said. 

His company held a symposium with Community Board 9 on Columbia University’s campus to promote cannabis literacy this week. But Bautista says he’s still waiting for his Conditional Adult-Use Retail Dispensaries (CAURD) license to be approved. He says businesses like his will be key to rooting out unlicensed retailers. 

“I believe that what happens is the market corrects itself because then the community bands together around [people they’ve known for] the years [that] now they have a license,” said Bautista. “And that helps shake out the opportunists and helps the industry find out because at the end of the day, regulators can only do so much. The authorities can only do so much. The community also needs to have people that they respect running these organizations.”

This past February, Mayor Eric Adams and Manhattan D.A. Alvin Bragg partnered up to crack down on unlicensed dispensaries. The D.A.’s Office sent more than 400 letters to shops around the borough warning them of potential eviction. 

“Legalizing cannabis was a major step forward for equity and justice — but we’re not going to take two steps back by letting illegal smoke shops take over this emerging market,” said Adams back then.

The NYPD says it cannot stop unlicensed shops from displaying cannabis and its main tactic to curb them is through the nuisance abatement law, which allows police to label and penalize properties over alleged nuisance or illegal conduct. 

“However, the nuisance abatement law does not authorize the closure of these unlicensed dispensaries until all parties have had an opportunity to present their case to the court,” said an NYPD spokesperson. “This can take weeks or months.”

But dispensaries, legal or illegal aren’t the only public safety concerns uptown faces in the wild, wild west of weed retail. Multiple shootings were reported in Harlem inside or nearby smoke shops over the past year. Earlier this month, a 36-year-old man was fatally shot inside of a store steps away from the prime intersection of 125th and Lenox. A former NYPD detective was struck by a stray bullet last October outside the same shop. 

To be clear, the city is still in the early stages of rolling out these recreational dispensaries. So how do New Yorkers know if they’re purchasing licensed cannabis? Taylor Randi Lee— Public Affairs Coordinator for the NYS Office of Cannabis Management—says a list is currently on the agency’s website.

“In New York State, licensed dispensary owners must use the Display Verification Tool: a sticker issued by the New York State Office of Cannabis Management in the window of their shops  near their main entrance for all cannabis consumers to see,” added Lee. “This Display Verification Tool will contain a QR code that is linked to the Office’s list of licensed adult-use cannabis dispensaries. Unlicensed and illegal dispensaries will not have access to the Display Verification Tool stickers and consumers will know that without that sticker, those dispensaries are selling untested products.”
Tandy Lau is a Report for America corps member and writes about public safety for the Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him 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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