As of last count (although it's likely more will have opened by the time you finish this sentence), there were approximately 1,200 unlicensed weed shops in New York City, with around a third of those in Manhattan. Each week brings new storefronts to the city's neighborhoods, bearing names like "Weed World" or "CannaBliss" or "The CoughyShop"—names that don't even bother to hide the fact that the vendors are selling weed without a license.
Since legalization in March 2021, these stores have operated with zero oversight from the state, expanding their footprint across the boroughs and in some cases, even opening down the block from one another (there's now a self-proclaimed "green district" on 42nd Street).
In New York, where no real enforcement mechanism was baked into its legalization statutes, the stores have been an inevitable byproduct of a law that tried to welcome people into the legal marketplace, instead of locking people out. And until legal shops did open, they were apparently tolerated by the powers that be.
"It is time for the operation of unlicensed cannabis dispensaries to end," Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg told reporters who had assembled at a community center on the Upper West Side on Tuesday afternoon. Bragg, flanked by local elected officials, including Mayor Eric Adams, announced that the City has every intention to finally close down these shops—while still not resorting to criminal enforcement, which ruined thousands of lives over a drug that corporations will now make millions from.
"We do not want to go back to those days," Bragg said. "Marijuana legalization in New York came with rules, and those rules must be respected."
On Tuesday morning, Bragg's office sent letters to around 400 smoke shops operating in Manhattan, alerting them that the City would be urging their landlords to begin the eviction process—and if the landlords failed to act, Bragg's office would evict the businesses themselves. Bragg's letter cites a little-used section of the City's Real Property Actions and Proceedings Law that requires landlords to kick out tenants who are engaged in illicit activity. Essentially, Bragg is trying to put the pressure on the retail landlords, so that he doesn't have to resort to any criminal prosecutions.
"While we are not ruling out criminal prosecutions for tax evasion, money laundering, or the sale of cannabis to minors, the focus of this initiative at this time is civil enforcement," Bragg said.
Sylvia Hinds-Radix, the City's corporation counsel, announced nuisance abatement actions for four stores in the East Village that had been caught selling weed to underage customers. But even those types of legal actions take months to close a shop down.
Mostly, however, today's announcement was meant to demonstrate that the City was doing something (and only in Manhattan so far) to cut down on the illegal dispensaries, especially as they cut into the business of the growing legal market.
One of the main drivers of the crackdown was Manhattan Councilmember Gale Brewer, whose own oversight committee on the city council pressed the City's sheriff last month to do more to cut down on unlicensed shops. Sheriff Anthony Miranda said that without any criminal enforcement powers regarding the selling of weed, his office was mostly relegated to confiscating weed, vapes, and untaxed cigarettes. Many of the stores that law enforcement raided at the end of last year were back up and running the next day.
During her remarks, Brewer, apparently not a toker herself, talked about her own "undercover" activities attempting to buy weed from one of these stores.
"I must admit, I wanted to see," she said. "So I go into a smoke shop around midnight on 86th Street. There's a woman sitting there with her friend and I'm like, what in hell's name am I going to say? Because I don't know what to say. So I said, 'My bones hurt,' because I'm old."
The two women, according to Brewer, then attempted to sell her marijuana.
Mayor Eric Adams added that some of the weed sold at these shops "could be laced with fentanyl." But when pressed later in the press conference over the fentanyl claim, Adams backed off, saying he had no knowledge of there being any fentanyl found in confiscated weed: "I'm going to have the police department, based on their testing, the items they tested, to see if we have a list of what the items are laced with, if at all." (The mayor's own jails chief has used fentanyl hysteria to push for banning physical mail to Rikers.)
The City appears a long way from closing the shops. Whether landlords, hungry for retail tenants doing good business (and paying in cash) will rush to comply with the district attorney's orders will probably depend on how quickly Bragg ever brings any of them to court.
For Christopher Alexander, the head of the state's cannabis regulatory agency and the one in charge of handing out the legal licenses, avoiding criminal prosecutions for the unlicensed market is key—but he's warning the vendors that they're blowing their chance for a license.
"So to folks who are going now and asking the question, 'Why not just give us a license?'" Alexander said at today's press conference. "Well, you've obviously demonstrated your ability to maintain compliance and so that's a criteria of examining whether or not someone should get a license."
Lost opportunity or not, until the day that selling unlicensed weed somehow becomes unprofitable for either the landlords, vendors, or weed growers, NYC will probably have a lot more places named "Dragons Den" and giant murals of a stoned Alvin the Chipmunk in its future.