It's been almost three years since New York legalized weed, but state officials have still only managed to license two legal adult-use shops. And while regulators continue to drag out the process, black market dealers have opened thousands of illicit pot shops to meet the massive demand for weed.
There are already 1,400 illegal pot shops in New York City alone, according to NYC Sheriff Anthony Miranda. Meanwhile, the city only has one legal pot shop to serve its 8.5 million residents. This dispensary, run by HIV nonprofit Housing Works, has seen long lines stretching around the block since it opened for business last month. The city's second adult-use shop is slated to open next week, but these two shops will still have thousands of illegal competitors.
Although the city has taken steps to crack down on illicit dealers, New York's adult-use law took careful steps to block cops from continuing to bust people for weed. These protections have largely stopped cops from making racially-disproportionate pot arrests, but they have also made enforcing penalties against illicit dealers harder. Cops can still seize any contraband bud or edibles, but in most cases, the stiffest penalty they can impose is a $250 fine.
These illegal shops pose several risks to public health and safety. For one, unregulated weed is not being tested for potency or safety. According to one recent study, 40% of the products sold at illegal pot shops and weed trucks in NYC contain salmonella, E. Coli, lead, or other toxic contaminants. City Council officials have also discovered that most locations allow underage teens to buy weed without ID.
And to make matters worse, these unlicensed shops are also a prime target for robberies. NYPD officials told the City Council that smoke shop robberies have doubled in the past year. Thieves have been jacking an average of $2,500 per heist, adding up to about $1.5 million for the last 592 reported incidents. Over a third of these robberies are committed by teens aged 15 to 19, who often hit multiple shops in one night.
In light of these concerns, lawmakers are now advocating for legislation giving cops more leeway to crack down on the black market. State Sen. Liz Krueger (D-Manhattan), who sponsored the state's adult-use law, is drafting a new bill to increase fines and tax violations for illicit pot shops. The proposal would also allow officials to penalize landlords knowingly renting space to illegal shops.
“They’re busy breaking a whole series of our laws,” Sen. Krueger said at the recent Council meeting, according to the New York Post. “What it is doing is harming the entire model we’ve been trying so hard to build and get established throughout the state... If you’re running one of these illegal shops, you won’t get a license. Period. Because you know you’re breaking the law and it’s not OK.”
Of course, the state could also stave off black market competition by allowing legal retailers to open for business. At present, Housing Works is the only official adult-use shop in all of New York state. Next week, the state's second licensee, Smacked LLC, will open a “pop-up” dispensary in Manhattan while it builds out its permanent location. And although it's the state's second license, it's the first that regulators have granted to a New Yorker that has previously been arrested for cannabis.
"I am so excited to become a part of history as the first individual to open a legal cannabis dispensary in New York City,” Conner said in a statement. “Given my experience with cannabis, I never could have imagined that I would be opening a store like this... But this is not just about me and my family. This is about everyone who was harmed by the draconian drug laws of the past."
But again, two legal dispensaries located a few blocks away from each other cannot serve a state with over 20 million residents. Regulators eventually plan to issue another 148 recreational retail licenses to businesses all over New York, but a lawsuit from an out-of-state business owner has put around half of these licenses on hold indefinitely.