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Morning Spew

Raids Aren’t Stopping Gray Market Weed Businesses

After a Tuesday raid, Empire Cannabis Clubs is still up and running.

9:47 AM EDT on July 13, 2023

The facade of Empire Cannabis Clubs's Soho facade.
(Hell Gate)

From the vibes on Wednesday afternoon, you'd never know the Chelsea location of Empire Cannabis Clubs had been raided the day before. A Kevin Gates song pumped through the speakers, and the shelves were stocked with various goodies, including flower, low-dose edibles, and an intriguing-looking infused ice cream in a special refrigerator. When I walked through the door and introduced myself as a reporter, I was told nobody would talk to me about the scuffle that occurred the day before—a joint operation, reportedly, between the NYPD and the state's tax authorities, who raided the chain's Chelsea store and confiscated product, and attempted to do the same at its Soho outpost.

Tuesday's raid marked a decided escalation in law enforcement against the city's gray market cannabis industry—while Empire Cannabis Clubs has maintained that it operates legally as a membership club, it's still not among the 19 licensed dispensaries operating in New York state. In February, it was one of a handful of businesses that received a cease-and-desist letter from the state's Office of Cannabis Management, warning two of Empire's proprietors—the siblings Jonathan and Lenore Elfand—that their failure to stop selling weed without a license "puts your ability to obtain a license in the legal cannabis market at substantial risk." Still, less sophisticated weed bodegas have been the primary targets of City and state law enforcement raids, where product is seized and shutdown notices are posted. No such signage was visible at Empire. This crackdown, however, is one of the first enforcement actions, and certainly the most high profile, resulting from a new law inked in June by Governor Kathy Hochul that empowers tax authorities to bring charges against proprietors operating unlicensed cannabis businesses. 

As a reporter and a customer, though, it's hard to feel worried. Overall, cannabis enforcement in the city has proved to be a kind of whack-a-mole situation—a weed bodega gets raided by the authorities, who strip flower and edibles and vapes from its shelves, only for another store to pop up in its place. Or, like Empire Cannabis Clubs, it restocks the same day, ready to serve willing customers. Empire Cannabis Clubs has yet to return a request for comment, but one of its owners, Jonathan Elfand, has already posted about the situation on his Instagram account. "The owners of EMPIRE CANNABIS don't leave their staff to handle the brunt of the state's misguided directive," he captioned a video that apparently showed footage of Tuesday's raid. "I've walked thru the NYC streets for ages watching my black and brown pales [sic] get thrown against the wall while they looked right past me."

On Wednesday, the patrons behind me at Empire—an older couple who were returning aficionados—hadn't heard about the raid until I told them about it. "Oh yeah? Looks like we had good timing then," the man, an affable, middle-aged white guy, quipped. There was no line out the door on Wednesday afternoon, like the Times reported in the aftermath of the raid, but I watched people make seamless purchases of technically illegal cannabis products all the same. 

"One day this will be a stupid thing in the past," the woman behind me in line said about the raid on Empire, just before I checked out. She's probably right.  

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