NEW YORK (PIX11) — For every legal cannabis shop in New York City, there are at least 150 illegal ones, according to both industry and government sources. A bill introduced in the New York City Council on Thursday intends to make it easier for the city to shut down the illegal ones. Whether or not that can happen, particularly on the scale in which it’s intended, is not yet clear, as some people on both the illegal and legal sides of the business pointed out.
The illegal shops number between 1,500 and 1,700 in New York City alone. By contrast, across all of New York State, there are only 26 legal cannabis retailers. In New York City’s five boroughs, the number of legal dispensaries is only 11.
One of them is ConBud, on Delancey Street, which opened just three weeks ago. It displays, as required by law, a seal in the window declaring that it’s “New York State Licensed.”
Its presence is a reminder of another fact — that the neighborhood in which it sits is the most heavily saturated with illegal competition. In fact, there are 60 illegal cannabis shops within 1,000 yards of ConBud.
One of them is Go Zaza, across the street and half a block down from its legal competitor.
Like ConBud, Go Zaza is a well-lit, colorful shop. Under the measure introduced at the New York City Council, Go Zaza could be shut down. Its manager, Ibrahim Al-Yafi, said that doing so would hurt the local economy, as well as people’s way of life.
“How will you close the store?” he asked, from behind the counter. “How many people work in smoke shops? It’s a lot. They have family. They have kids.”
He said that his store’s owner is interested in acquiring a license. In the meantime, though, the hundreds of illegal shops like his are profiting without paying taxes, and without having their product inspected for quality and content.
Those points were emphasized by Keith Powers, a city councilmember from Manhattan, who’s also the New York City Council majority leader. He drafted and introduced the new legislation.
“This will allow a city agency like the NYPD or Sheriff’s Office,” Powers said in an interview, “to walk in [to a cannabis shop] and when they find there’s an illegal product being sold through an illegal buy, they will be able to padlock and shut the business down .”
Powers said that his proposed law expands the city’s nuisance abatement law. It’s been used effectively, he and his supporters said, to expel X-rated theaters and other sex trafficking businesses from Times Square beginning in the 1970s, and to shut down K2 and other synthetic marijuana vendors over the last decade.
At least nine co-sponsors and counting have signed on to the bill, and with it having been introduced by the majority leader, it’s expected to eventually pass.
Its enforcement, however, may take some time to be fully effective.
The owner of one of the city’s few legal shops said that while he supports the new measure, its implementation may be a long time coming.
“Right now, I’ve got to sit, I’ve got to wait,” said Coss Marté, the owner of ConBud. “I’m not part of the enforcement, you know. I’m not gonna be snitching on nobody,” he continued. “That’s against what I believe in, and that’s the way it is.”
He also volunteered that his brother, Councilmember Chris Marté, is one of the co-sponsors of the new bill.
The ConBud owner went on to say that state regulations may actually pose the largest impediments to his business.
Unlike illegal shops, he said, he’s not allowed to display signs showing marijuana products in his windows, or advertise in any overt way.
Another legal cannabis retailer said that another aspect of the state’s licensure program is working against legal sellers, and in favor of illegal ones.
“I believe the focus is in the wrong place,” said Shlomo Weinstein, the founder and CEO of Flowery Dispensary of Staten Island.
He said that since he received his state cannabis license a year ago, he’s secured a retail location, and hired 14 employees.
They’ve now gone, however, he said, because an ongoing court challenge to the terms of state licensure has prevented him and more than 400 other people who received licenses from operating.
“We’re ready to serve,” Weinstein said. “We’re not really so much concerned about the illicit market.”
“Give me an opportunity to compete,” he added.
Weinstein said that he and the hundreds of other legal retailers placed in limbo by a judge’s injunction against new legal shops need the state to do more for them. The city, meanwhile, is taking action against illegal sales, which he and other legal retailers have said that they support.