Smoke shop robberies in New York City went up more than four times between the first and second years of cannabis legalization in New York state, NYPD Chief of Patrol John Chell testified at a City Council hearing Wednesday on the spread of the stores selling unlicensed cannabis or untaxed tobacco products.

Since New York legalized recreational marijuana in March 2021, unlicensed and untaxed operations have openly sold the product while the state lagged in opening licensed storefronts. Chell reported 593 such smoke-shop robberies in 2022, way up from 137 in 2021.

That comes to nearly one robbery for every two smoke shops, according to the NYPD’s count. The police department reports finding 428 of them in Brooklyn, 373 in Manhattan, 226 in Queens, 204 in The Bronx and 90 on Staten Island, for a total of 1,321. 

“We estimated from the 593 robberies that about $1.5 million in cash” was stolen, said Chell, noting “that’s about $2,500” per robbery not counting merchandise. 

The first licensed store debuted at Astor Place days after Christmas in 2022. 

In the meantime, the NYPD largely left enforcement of unlicensed operations openly selling marijuana without a license to the much smaller Sheriff’s Office, an arm of the city’s Department of Finance charged with enforcing civil rather than criminal laws.  

Sheriff Anthony Miranda testified on Wednesday that “the current survey we’ve done comes up to 1,400 locations being involved in the illegal smoke or vapes or cannabis business.” Most of them would be seeing city enforcement soon, Miranda said.

A task force launched by City Hall in November to combat off-the-books cannabis sales, including both the NYPD and the sheriff’s office, seemed to indicate a more aggressive approach to unlicensed operations. A two-week sting operation in December seized $4.1 million worth of product from 53 locations and leveled fines averaging $30,000 to $50,000, Miranda said at the time. Mayor Eric Adams declared then: “We are not going to allow these stores to stay open.”

On Wednesday Miranda testified, “The taskforce has continued. It did not stop after two weeks. We regrouped. We analyzed the information that we received, and now we’ll continue to go out.” Altogether the city “probably identified over 1,200 locations that are going to be inspected.”

Miranda and Chell both noted that smoke shop owners are now warning each other about potential law enforcement raids. 

Good Cop, Bad Cop

The sheriffs aren’t the only people targeting smoke shops. An employee at Smoke City on Ninth Avenue and West 49th Street in Hell’s Kitchen was shot in the leg late Tuesday night after getting into a dispute with several young customers, police say. Earlier this month, two people were shot in two separate robberies in East New York and the Lower East Side.

According to Chell, “Some of these robberies are committed using vehicles with paper plates or plate covers on registered vehicles.” And they’re not just cars, he said: “The vehicles that are used for these robberies [also] include illegal dirt bikes that give you the maneuverability to move out quickly.” 

Chell said the NYPD is trying to help smoke shop owners watch out for themselves. “We give literature on how to protect themselves vis-à-vis cameras, lighting, buzzer systems,” he said.

City Councilmember Carlina Rivera, a Manhattan Democrat who attended the opening of the licensed Housing Works dispensary, replied that “we all feel very, very frustrated by this entire process.” Rivera is concerned that unlicensed locations have “popped up illegally and especially [their] proximity to schools.” 

As lawmakers pressed law enforcement officials to do more, Councilmember Kalman Yeger (D-Brooklyn) criticized his colleagues, saying, “It must be very frustrating for the police department and the sheriff’s office to deal with these questions about enforcement.” The issues they’re dealing with were “created by the very people who are asking these questions,” Yeger said.

After the hearing, Councilmember Gale Brewer (D-Manhattan) said that her staff canvassed the Upper West Side in November to count stores selling cannabis. “There were 26, and since then the number’s gone up to 28,” Brewer said — and 22 of those shops also sold untaxed cigarettes. 

According to a recent study by the tax policy nonprofit The Tax Foundation, 53.5% of all cigarettes sold in New York state are not taxed, easily the highest rate in the country and costing Albany $1.1 billion in lost revenue. 

Brewer also noted (including via tweet) that several smoke shops in her district that were shut down by the city managed to restock and reopen days later.

After the hearing, Chell told THE CITY it usually took a week or two after raiding a smokeshop to come back and check on its status. He also emphasized that the authorities have a lot on their hands. 

“I mean, there’s 1,400 of these places.”