New York State Senator Brad Hoylman-Sigal has joined the fight against unauthorized cannabis shops — and is calling for a “hands-on approach” involving the Hell’s Kitchen community and for the Office of Cannabis Management (OCM) Director “to act quickly and aggressively to shut down these unlicensed stores.”
- NY State Senator Brad Hoylman-Sigal is calling for aggressive action to shut down unauthorized cannabis shops, with 38 such shops in Hell’s Kitchen alone.
- Legislation was passed giving the Office of Cannabis Management (OCM) and Department of Taxation and Finance (DTF) authority to enforce against unlicensed shops through fines, injunctions, and seizures. However, enforcement has been slow.
- Community members have raised public safety concerns, citing shootings and robberies at unlicensed shops. Hoylman-Sigal says a “hands-on approach” involving the community is needed in the fight against illegal cannabis sales.
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Hell’s Kitchen is home to at least 38 unlicensed cannabis shops and has long been a battleground in the fight against the unauthorized businesses in New York, raising concerns for public safety in the neighborhood.
“Before even the first cannabis shops opened, you had rogue sellers moving quickly,” said Hoylman-Sigal. “At the same time, you had city officials, including the mayor himself saying that he was going to look the other way. That was an open invitation to cannabis operators to come to New York City, set up shops, sell illegal products and now we’re left with a situation where we’re playing whack-a-mole against the illegal shops that keep popping up.”
He has worked with Hell’s Kitchen Neighborhood Coalition (HKNC) to compile a list of the addresses of illegal shops to pass on to the director of the OCM, while encouraging community boards and others to bring the information they have on illegal operations to elected officials.
“In our district, we have no licensed shops. They are all unlicensed,” said Joe Restuccia, a leader of HKNC, during a recent public forum. “Shops are all cash-based, lack security, and are susceptible to robbery.” He added that many of the packaging caters to young children and the shops sell candy, food and soda which “is prohibited under the legalization law.”
Elected officials, city agencies and community members gathered at the forum to discuss the issue and what’s being done about it. Enforcement has been hampered because only OCM and the Department of Taxation and Finance (DTF) are authorized to take action against the unlicensed businesses. Legislation passed earlier this year gave OCM and DTF the power to act. OCM is now allowed to seize products and seek injunctions to close the shops, while DTF can issue fines and penalties for unpaid taxes.
“So in the budget, OCM can assess civil penalties against unlicensed businesses starting at $10,000 a day and rising to double that per day for the most egregious conduct,” said Hoylman-Sigal. Landlords who permit unlicensed shops can also be put on the hook for $10,000 a day in fines.
“This wasn’t anticipated. Initially, OCM wasn’t supposed to be dealing with enforcement,” said Jason Salmon, Deputy Director of Campaigns and Outreach at OCM. “It’s not a quick process. We’re going to need all hands on deck because it is a really big problem but we do take it seriously.” The authority to enforce was granted on June 7 and OCM is in the process of hiring staff to help with enforcement, added Salmon.
While enforcement is the biggest issue for officials now, the rise of unlicensed cannabis shops goes back further. Use of recreational cannabis was legalized on March 31, 2021 — when OCM was created — and the first licensed cannabis retailers opened in April 2022.
“I think it is fair to say we were unprepared for the rush to open illegal stores. The brazenness, I think, was breathtaking. The fact that the city and state really sat on their hands during this opening period was unfortunate, but the legislature has tried to do a course correction and I’m hopeful that we’re going to see some of the fruits of our efforts,” said Hoylman-Sigal.
The issue of unlicensed cannabis shops has also raised concerns about public safety. In January, a smoke shop worker was shot on the same day the City Council was holding a hearing on the unlicensed stores. Another man was shot at a smoke shop in April, just a few days after another unlicensed smoke shop went up in flames.
“There have been shootings, there have been robberies, there have been unsavory activities,” said Hoylman-Sigal. “I don’t think we expected the tsunami of illegal activities.”
In June, The City Council passed legislation making it illegal for landlords to knowingly rent to tenants who are selling cannabis. Several dozen inspections were conducted in June, and 1,000 pounds of illegal cannabis were seized across the state.
“Part of the problem has been that since the inception of this law, it’s been a top-down approach. If we empower our block associations and community boards and localities to be part of the construction of this new legalized regime, I think we get better outcomes,” said Hoylman-Sigal.