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High Life

As More Legal Weed Stores Finally Open, They Say They’re Ready to Compete With Unlicensed Shops

Enforcement probably won't be what ends the illicit weed bodega.

Coss Marte at the opening of ConBud on October 19th, 2023. (Hell Gate)

On Thursday, ConBud, a new legal weed dispensary on Delancey Street, finally opened its doors to customers. This scenario is what state regulators at the Office of Cannabis Management had originally envisioned when the agency laid out its groundbreaking weed licensing program in 2021. Coss Marté, a person who had done several stints in prison because of the state's drug laws (and brother of City Councilmember Chris Marté, whose district includes Delancey Street) is part of the group behind the shop, hoping to make money off of legal weed.

"I got sent away when I was thirteen for selling two nickel bags," Marté said before cutting a green ribbon at the store's entrance. "Well, I'm about to sell a whole lot more than that."

But the road to get to this point has been far from smooth, and much remains uncertain. 

Between a barrage of lawsuits, a chaotic rollout of the state's cannabis licenses for people negatively impacted by the justice system, and the blossoming of hundreds of unlicensed weed shops, Marté's success story is coming years later than expected, and at a deeply turbulent time for the state's regulatory agency, the Office of Cannabis Management.

ConBud was one of only only a handful stores exempted from a far-ranging injunction issued in August by a state judge that froze the state's licensing for justice-impacted individuals and veterans—leaving around 400 hopeful cannabis store owners uncertain when they'll be able to open their doors. While Marté and those other store owners were found by the judge to be "ready to open" and therefore exempt from the injunction, many of the pending applicants are already paying rent or have laid out serious expenses to get their stores ready for the green light from the state, which is now all held up in court. 

"Amidst all the ridicule, criticism, and lawsuits, we've stayed the course," said OCM Executive Director Christopher Alexander, in defending the agency's approach toward licensing during a press conference on Thursday. "To all the folks who are waiting for the injunction to clear and the opportunity to start their businesses, we are not leaving you behind. I don't care what the narrative is." 

But of course, not everyone has waited for the state to sign off on their business. Near ConBud, on Orchard Street, which some locals have dubbed "Little Amsterdam," there's a concentration of unlicensed weed shops where customers have already been able to buy illicit weed, and at cheaper prices than ConBud. 

For over a year, a concentrated effort by elected officials to crack down on illegal shops has yielded minimal results—most are not only still standing, but are now expanding their operations and show rooms. 

A shuttered weed bodega in the East Village. (Hell Gate)

Enforcement of code violations or fines from the state, some officials are conceding, might not be the only answer to safeguarding the New York's legal market. Instead, just simply opening up more legal stores could be the way to go. 

"People complain to me all the time about the illegal stores," said Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine at ConBud's opening, pointing back at the store. "This is the solution you're looking for!"

Over on Orchard Street, Reggie Yu, who said that he has been involved in the cannabis trade for over 25 years, was surveying the unlicensed stores on the block on Wednesday afternoon. To him, New York is not all that different from any other state that has both a thriving legal weed market and an underground one. 

"This is just how it's always been, weed being sold on the street," Yu said. "Is one going to win out? Probably not. We're forced to coexist, whether it's someone putting it out directly to the streets or legally through a store."

Marté, at his own store's opening on Thursday, was bullish on going up against the unlicensed shops. He stressed that because of the licensing system, his product was cleaner, safer, and more controlled than at unlicensed shops—and consumers would appreciate that. 

"I'm going to have to compete with them," he said, pointing out to the street. His own shop now sits at the corner of Delancey and Orchard. "Whether you're a smoke shop next to me, or I have friends who have been doing their thing out here for years, I got to compete. I started at the lamppost here at the corner. And now, look at me, I'm right back on the corner." 

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