Unlicensed Pot Shops Still Selling Weed Following NYPD Shutdown Actions
‘Nuisance abatement’ cases are still pending in court, with just four filed so far, all in the East Village.
Mayor Eric Adams had firm words on Feb. 7 for the operators of smoke shops selling cannabis illegally just as New York’s first legal pot shops were getting business underway.
“We wanted to let them know that we’re not going to stand idly by and we won’t stop until every illegal smoke shop is rolled up and stubbed out,” Adams said at a press conference with Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, Corporation Counsel Sylvia Hinds-Radix and other officials announcing a crackdown on the proliferating storefronts.
That day, city lawyers brought four cases to Manhattan Supreme Court, each seeking to have a judge declare an East Village business a nuisance for selling cannabis without a license, a new enforcement approach. In each case, an NYPD officer had entered the store with a 20-year-old auxiliary officer, who proceeded to purchase cannabis products on three occasions.
This week one such business on First Avenue was shut down by court order. Another, on St. Marks Place, is still operating under a partial injunction that only forbids selling cannabis products — something it’s not licensed to do anyway.
As of Friday, the other two remained fully open while their nuisance abatement cases are pending, with customers casually walking in and and out to buy product.
One store simply called Broadway, at 736 Broadway just south of Astor Place, is a block away from Housing Works Cannabis Co., the first store licensed for adult recreational retail sales by New York State’s Office of Cannabis Management.
At this unlicensed store on Thursday, customers bought joints, called pre-rolls, and said they preferred buying cannabis at prices lower than those charged at the city’s two licensed retail outlets. Theo Rose, who works near the unlicensed shop at 736 Broadway, said he’s already shopped there several times, adding that what drives him there is “the affordability, period.” In contrast, at Housing Works “It’s 60 bucks for an eighth plus tax. I’m not doing that,” Rose said.
Another shop stung by the NYPD, at 24 Avenue A, was still open for business when THE CITY visited Tuesday and again on Thursday. A third, Saint Marks Convenience & Smoke Shop at 103 St. Marks Place, is subject to an injunction from Judge James E. D’Auguste that forbids the space from being used for the sale of cannabis without a license, but permits the store to remain open pending a court hearing.
Only Runtz Tobacco at 14 Avenue A has been ordered to close for business entirely, under an injunction D’Auguste issued Monday that took effect Wednesday, pending a hearing later this month.
When THE CITY visited on Tuesday, the store was open for business and offering pre-rolled joints for sale. On a followup visit Thursday, the store was closed and had an NYPD CLOSED BY COURT ORDER notice pasted to its glass door, along with a restraining order notice forbidding “use and occupancy” as well as “unlicensed sale of cannabis.”
The city cases targeting 736 Broadway and 24 Avenue A are still pending.
Shut and Open Again
The four nuisance abatement cases the city Law Department filed Feb. 7 are the only ones so far — all targeting operations in the East Village, not far from the three state-licensed cannabis dispensaries that have opened in New York City so far.
Bragg also said at the Feb. 7 announcement with Adams that his office was preparing to send out more than 400 letters to smoke shops in Manhattan telling them they could be facing eviction.
Asked this week about progress, a spokesperson for Bragg, Danielle Filson, indicated that the DA’s office is still laying the groundwork.
“We are currently in the stage of working with our partners to determine where evidence exists of unauthorized cannabis sales and other illegal activity,” Filson said in a statement to THE CITY. “Then we will notify landlords of their requirement to begin eviction proceedings of those shops.”
An NYPD spokesperson did not comment specifically on the four shops, but did say that, “the nuisance abatement law does not authorize the closure of these unlicensed dispensaries until all parties have had an opportunity to present their case to the court. This can take weeks or months.”
City Councilmember Gale Brewer, the Upper West Side Democrat, said she’s been getting an increasing number of complaints from parents concerned their children will be sold cannabis at one of the unlicensed dispensaries. Brewer tagged along with the sheriff’s office when they seized illegal cannabis from two stores, she said, but the stores opened again after the raids.
However, Brewer does not expect the efforts by Adams and Bragg to yield a big reduction in unlicensed stores quickly, saying, “if you think that any human being can close down 1,400 in the city overnight — that’s not gonna happen.”
The city Sheriff’s Office estimates more than 1,400 illegal cannabis shops are operating across the city. Last week, Adams complained that enforcement is hampered by a state law that limits the penalty for illicit cannabis sales to a $250 fine.
“That’s the cost of doing business” for illegal retailers, the mayor said. “Our police officers can’t take the necessary action.”
In December, Adams announced that a task force centered in the city Sheriff’s Office had been conducting raids and confiscating product, inspecting 53 locations during a two-week pilot last year. However, only another 54 had been inspected since then, according to a letter provided by the Adams administration to the City Council in early February.
The illegal industry poses a direct competitive threat to businesses licensed by the state Office of Cannabis Management (OCM). Most of the licensed businesses are still working to open their doors under the state’s tightly regulated system. For the first rounds of licenses, the state’s legalization law prioritizes people formerly convicted of cannabis-related offenses.
OCM spokesperson Aaron Ghitelman said in a statement to THE CITY that, in partnership with the Sheriff’s Office, “we have confiscated 20 mobile trucks, conducted enforcement at over 75 unlicensed shops, issued over 200 cease and desist orders, and seized an estimated value of $10,000,000 worth of unregulated product.”
On Thursday, OCM announced it will double the number of Conditional Adult Use Retail Dispensary Licenses, which are exclusive to those impacted by cannabis-related convictions, to 300. Most licensees are still awaiting storefronts, whose construction is supposed to be overseen and financed by an investment partnership coordinated by the state Dormitory Authority.