Interviews & Profiles

Unlicensed dispensaries are blanketing a number of New York City neighborhoods

A Q&A with New York City Council Member Gale Brewer.

New York City Council Member Gale Brewer chairs the New York City Council Oversight and Investigations Committee.

New York City Council Member Gale Brewer chairs the New York City Council Oversight and Investigations Committee. Kristen Blush

Gale Brewer chairs the New York City Council Oversight and Investigations Committee, which gives her jurisdiction over the city Department of Small Business Services and other agencies involved in implementing the state’s marijuana laws. Brewer chaired a committee hearing on the rising number of unlicensed dispensaries in the city and once sent staffers to canvas the Upper West Side to determine how many smoke shops were operating illegally in her district. She has suggested the state raise fines on unlicensed shops and target retailers operating near schools and houses of worship.

How well is New York’s adult-use cannabis program working? 

Back in October 2022, we sent out interns to go from 54th Street to 208th Street on the West Side of Manhattan and we found 64 illegal cannabis shops. It’s a huge number on the Upper West Side, and the part that’s most disturbing is that many of them are near high schools. I’m conscious of the fact that principals are seeing students vaping, and that’s never happened before.

It’s a hard time to keep up with what agencies are doing. One closed and reopened. My first experience was to go out with a sheriff. We did three raids, and it took the whole day to do that. You have to go item by item, you have to mark them down – mark the cigarettes, which are coming from North Carolina, and the cannabis, which is coming from California. You have to go through each item. I don’t really know what’s happening to the fines. It was $30,000 to $40,000 worth of fines, that’s what they can do. When we did that, the Department of Consumer Affairs had been there and issued summons for illegal cigarettes but that was it. I don’t know if we’ll find out what happened to those fines. And they’ve been doing that across the city. We were accompanied by people with the Office of Cannabis Management. We had a press conference with the district attorney of Manhattan, who sent out notices to owners. And you saw a press release from OCM, which has some new laws; they closed two upstate illegal cannabis shops. My frustration is, you have all these people, you have the AGs involved and the corporation counsel of nuisance laws. You have all these people doing this, but I don’t know what collaboration is going on.

What’s working well? 

I don’t know. It takes a long time to go to court here. I don’t know what the district attorney is doing, what the state is doing, which is shared so you have busts that one agency has done so the other agency can pick up and go to court. I’ve heard one or two stores have closed in the city.

I don’t know how they’re paying the rent. The rent is high in Manhattan. I see people in the evening and kids are there, but I don’t see a lot of people during the day. Most people think they’re legal and I got screamed at for messing with them by older adults who use them for medicine, for thinking about closing them or trying to. It’s wild.

What, if anything, needs to be improved? 

The city and state need to work more closely. I’m trying to get them in the office to do that. They’re trying the nuisance law, they’re trying to close this down. You have the state law. I know the state needs one buy – instead of three. The state law is now one buy and that’s what they did upstate.

There’s so many people involved. There’s the state Department of Taxation and Finance working with the Office of Cannabis Management. You see closed and padlocked stores, but if you put a sticker up, they take it down and reopen.

What issues need to be addressed surrounding enforcement?

It seems to me that when the sheriff, district attorney and whoever else is doing the buys, there has to be better coordination and sharing of information between the city and state. The state can’t do 1,400. It’s hard for one agency to do all of that, even with tax and finance. When the district attorney does buys, or sheriff, corporation counsel or NYPD, they should be able to share the information with the state so the state has a quicker way of closing them. I don’t think that’s happening, but I could be wrong.

What issues need to be addressed surrounding social equity?

Of course everybody says directly we need legal shops. I’ve been surprised how much support there is for legal shops. Legal potential shops have gone to the community boards sometimes in Manhattan, and there were 72 people applying to Community Board 2 for 50 applications. They’re going through them. They may not have a lease, or a sign off from the state, and some are further along than others, but that’s a lot of people applying. The board people are smart, they’ll figure out who is legitimate, but they want more resources.

Are there enough resources in place to run the program effectively?

The state oversees them but we never hear from SBS. The ones that are open seem to be very well managed, I haven’t heard that as a problem. Once they’re open, they have so many hoops to go through and the community boards have to pay attention. There are so few open, nine in the city, and they’re making tons of money.

Are there successful models that can be followed to improve the program in other states or in New York?

We started out with the criminal justice-involved people. I have friends who have knee problems, so she goes to a New Jersey dispensary, and it’s like getting into Fort Knox. You have to have your ID, and there are three different checkpoints, but she goes once a week. It’s recreational, but it acts as medicinal. The big guys came in and set it up, so it’s much quicker.

Here in New York, it was a good thing we expunged people’s past problems and criminal records and at the same time tried to give them jobs. A few have gotten that and are doing well, but the problem was getting financing and getting them off the ground. So we opened up this window for other people to come in, and the folks who are veterans have sued, and that’s been settled. There’s also the medicinal opening. They’re ebbing and national players have been able to get into the game. It’s a different group that’s going to be involved. We’ll have to see how quickly it all goes.

I have to give New York state credit for working hard. When people get in who are criminal justice-involved, it’s a big deal and it’s important.