Hoping to address the smoke cloud of confusion over New York’s weed legalization process, City Council Member Gale Brewer will host a Cannabis Town Hall on Tuesday December 13 at John Jay College and over Zoom. 

Cannabis Town Hall
Council member Gale Brewer will host a Cannabis Town Hall at John Jay College. Photo montage: Phil O’Brien & Roberto Valdivia/Unsplash

The meeting, held in conjunction with Assembly Member Linda Rosenthal, the New York State Office of Cannabis Management (OCM) and representatives from NYC Department of Small Business Services, NYC Department of Consumer and Worker Protection, NYPD and Manhattan Community Boards 4 and 7, will address the West Side’s growing “grey market” weed shops, which, in the absence of a faster licensure process, have sprouted up around town without regulation and often containing contaminated or diluted marijuana

“In addition to immediate public health risks associated with selling unregulated ingestible and combustible cannabis – including to New Yorkers under age 21 – I am concerned that the free-for-all environment will become entrenched and disincentive sellers from seeking licensure at all. Licensed sellers will be forced to compete with unregulated (presumably less expensive) stores, and the city and state will miss out on much-needed tax revenue — tax revenue also meant to fund the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA)’s laudable social equity initiatives,” wrote Brewer in a recent letter addressed to the New York State Office of Cannabis Management and New York City Police Department as well as various small business agencies involved in the licensing process. 

Having sent her staff to canvass for illicit retailers from W54th to W108th Street, Brewer’s team found that of 61 tobacco smoke shops, “Cannabis is available at 26 locations (26!), from bodegas and delis to smoke shops and newsstands. All but four of the retailers also sell tobacco products and/or electronic flavored and unflavored ‘vaping’ products (more than a few also lack licenses to sell tobacco, according to the City’s Open Data Portal).” She added: “Only four retail cannabis licenses have been awarded for all of Manhattan, and 36 for all of New York State. None of these retailers have opened for business. There is no ambiguity in the law: it is illegal to sell cannabis without a license. The ambiguity lies in who can and should enforce it.” 

Brewer added: “To be clear, I do not want to see unlicensed cannabis sellers enter the criminal justice system for anything less than severe criminal conduct that threatens public safety, but the need for consistent seizure and civil penalties to curtail unlicensed sales is apparent.” To protect the emerging legal program, she has asked the Office of Cannabis Management, the Sheriff’s office and the Department of Finance to further enforce civil penalties against illicit sales, while identifying more measures like consumer educational campaigns and landlord accountability for retail space usage. 

Despite the rollout of the OCM’s recently released guidelines for the city’s upcoming dispensaries, many community boards have been left in the dark about incoming shops and the business approval process. Queens community board member Florence Koulouris told THE CITY, “What are we reviewing? Are we looking at backgrounds? Are we sending it to the police department? You know, they made these forms, they posted them on the website, but we have not received any instructions on them. We have not received any guidance as of yet.” Some community boards have requested a longer approval period than the current 30 days, acknowledging that in addition to reviewing their usual State Liquor Authority applications, they would now need to fold cannabis requests into the mix. 

John Jay College
John Jay College will host the Cannabis Town Hall this week. Photo: Phil O’Brien

“Community boards are the groundwork for the city of New York. We are the eyes and ears on the ground. We know the things that most other people don’t know,” Koulouris told THE CITY. “And, you know, a lot of times we need more guidance than what we’re receiving in order to help us to do a better job.”

OCM spokesperson Aaron Ghitelman said in a statement to THE CITY: “The Office is collaborating with municipal bodies, including in New York City, to make sure their communities will be heard.” 

For now, Brewer hopes to “fill the info vacuum” at the community meeting and establish a clear path forward for legal pot’s new frontier: “The City of New York must be a strong partner to OCM for the successful rollout of the MRTA,” she said.

To attend the meeting in person or on Zoom, please register here.

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