On a recent trip to New York City, the busy streets were redolent with the smell of weed. Everyone from nepo babies shopping in Soho to stylish couples strolling in Central Park was enjoying a legal smoke.
In March 2021, New York State passed the Cannabis Regulation and Taxation Act (CRTA), which legalized recreational cannabis for adults aged 21 and older. However, implementing the law has been anything but smooth. While there were dozens of stores selling weed within walking distance of my Lower East Side hotel, none of them were actually legal.
The dispensary pictured here continued to brazenly do business while sporting an official Restraining Order from the New York City police.
No Good Deed…
New York State’s legalization efforts began with the best of intentions by including strong social equity provisions aimed at addressing the historical disparities in cannabis enforcement. This prioritized giving retail licenses to people legally impacted by cannabis prohibition. The goal was “establishing businesses owned by justice-involved individuals at the bedrock of New York’s adult-use cannabis market,” according to the state, which vowed to get stores up-and-running by late 2022.
Before many of the successful applicants were ready to open their stores, lawsuits abruptly put a halt to retail licensing. In March of 2023, marijuana multistate operators sued, objecting to the favouring of social justice applicants. In August, a similar suit was filed by a group of disabled military veterans, who also argued that disabled veterans should qualify as social and economic applicants. This resulted in an injunction that halted New York’s equity licensing process.
By September 2023, across the entire state, only 23 social equity licensees were open for business with the vast majority - over 400 - left hanging. In the meantime, some 1,500 unlicensed businesses are operating in New York City alone.
In mid-September, New York’s Office of Cannabis Management seemingly reversed its course and announced that it will make licenses available to the general public as well as large multistate operators and medical companies. Big cannabis companies will no doubt be coming to the state, providing intense competition for independent retailers.
Meanwhile, many social equity licensees are in jeopardy. CNBC reports on “Coss Marte’s marijuana dispensary in lower Manhattan [which] has already cost him over $1 million, and it’s not even open yet.
“He was awarded a coveted dispensary license last year on the basis of his prior marijuana-related convictions…But now, as the state tries to boost the slow-moving legal weed rollout, Marte’s business is one of hundreds in limbo and potentially on the brink of ruin as the state prepares to release general licenses.”
Blunt Purchasing Advice
At least until the big chains roll into town, NYC’s illegal pot shops will continue to thrive. Proceed with caution - obviously you are breaking the law by purchasing from these outlets. Nonetheless, the stores I frequented had excellent (if over-enthusiastic) service. I bought pre-rolls for convenience, legally grown in New York and California. Prices were 2-3 times higher than in Toronto, although competition will likely make cannabis less expensive.
More legal shops are set to open soon, as the state tries to finally cash in on cannabis tax revenue. The Office of Cannabis Management provides a list of all legal dispensaries in New York State.
And remember, no matter where you buy your weed in New York State, try to consume it before you leave because you most likely can’t travel with cannabis.