Additional reporting by Alyssa Katz
Nearly two years after New York legalized the recreational use of marijuana, the first Conditional Adult-Use Retail Dispensary licensee opened in the Village on Thursday, finally completing the state’s seed-to-sale marketplace.
The 4,400 square-foot dispensary, run by Housing Works and located in a former Gap store at the corner of Broadway and Astor Place, drew a crowd of New York politicians to celebrate the moment on Thursday morning.
Later that day, at 4:20 p.m, the store had its “official opening,” when a crowd of several hundred enthusiastic New Yorkers including hip-hop legend Fab 5 Freddy waited for a doorman to let people in and out of the store from a line outside that felt its own nightclub.
As people outside blew big clouds of smoke and Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg tunes played, a 70-year-old who identified himself only as “Joe Pipe” and who kept yelling out “Merry Cannabis!” told THE CITY that he’d been smoking since attending Catholic school in Brooklyn back in the day. “It was love at first high,” he recalled, and now it’s a legal and licensed love.
Housing Works CEO Charles King told THE CITY on Thursday morning that the dispensary’s proceeds will go to the non-profit operation’s existing work, and that it will not only give employment preference to those formerly incarcerated due to possession but also help them become entrepreneurs in the industry themselves.
“We have an affirmative action policy here,” said King. “Hiring affirmatively people who have been criminalized due to possession. We intend to provide our folks with training programs to allow them to move up in the cannabis industry and even to obtain licenses of their own. And we intend to use the proceeds from hopefully what will not just be one retail outlet, but more than one to ameliorate circumstances for other people who have been incarcerated due to the possession of drugs.”
As THE CITY has reported, licensees with previous pot convictions who had been promised a head start in the licensed marketplace and support from the state are still waiting for approval to open their own locations. Those justice-involved people were also supposed to receive support from a $200 million New York Social Equity Cannabis Investment Fund managed by a group including former NBA star Chris Webber, but that fund has yet to disclose any investments past the $50 million the state has vowed to directly contribute from licensing fees and revenue.
At Thursday’s press conference, Office of Cannabis Management Executive Director Chris Alexander stressed that “Legalization for us has never been about just freedom,” and the need to “make sure we’re creating opportunity in the way that we’re prioritizing (and) repairing harm that’s been done even by the state’s own policy.”
Alexander made the first official purchase (of gummies), along with Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine and New York City Councilperson Carlina Rivera, who told the spirited crowd that “I’ve been waiting since I was a teenager” for this moment.
Jen Nessel, 56, said that she was thrilled to have a licensed establishment here, selling products made and tested in the state that she can be confident aren’t laced with anything.
“There’s so many illegal ones proliferating, and you don’t know what you’re getting,” said Nessel, a longtime East Village resident. “So it’s nice that there’s finally something that you can be sure of what you’re getting. It’s particularly nice that a place like Housing Works, which works with people who’ve been harmed by the drug war, can enter the market and use profits to help people.”
‘A Little Bit of a Slap in the Face’
Matt Arnold, 49, also applauded the roll-out of a licensed store. “There’s four unlicensed, unregulated, sketchy smoke shops on every block downtown now,” Arnold said.
Those smoke shops have frequently been the target of robberies, as THE CITY has previously reported.
“As the parent of a teenager, that’s very concerning to me,” he added. “We’re all for regulation. Redressing the ills of the drug war on communities of color and other marginalized communities is a good one. I hope that they see that through.”
But having a legal dispensary nearby isn’t changing Cory Gallan’s shopping habits.
“I think I decided that, to be honest, I’ll probably continue to use the black market like I have most of my life,” said Gallan, 36, who’s lived in the Village for 12 years. “But it’s exciting that it’s legal. I mean, if you told me when I was 13 that there were going to be gummies and these electric ways of smoking weed it’s almost like science fiction.”
But, he said, “It’s also like a little bit of a slap in the face, I think, to a lot of people. And that’s why I’ll continue to use the black market because, you know, there’s people who’ve been doing this, who’ve been risking their lives and safety to provide this service to people for a long time.
“And I think just because there’s a storefront now, and it’s convenient, I don’t think it should be abandoned.”
On Thursday evening, about two and a half hours after the Housing Works store opened its doors, a journalist with THE CITY happened to see city Sheriff’s officers, accompanied by NYPD officers, raiding a store on Ninth Avenue off 45th Street and leaving with trash bags full of merchandise.
The Sheriff’s Office, which operates as the enforcement arm of the city’s Department of Finance, has been at the forefront of the city’s limited enforcement efforts. The NYPD has taken the position that it is not allowed to enforce licensing violations from stores openly advertising their wares unless they directly witness a sale.
One officer on Thursday evening said that they were going from store to store conducting raids.
On Friday morning, New York City Sheriff Anthony Miranda sent a statement saying that “The Sheriff’s Office in partnership with OCM and NYPD continues to conduct inspections of illegal operations seizing all illegal and unlicensed products. These locations continue to present a public health and safety problem for our communities.”