As state officials drag their feet on the implementation of additional licensed cannabis stores, it seems that at least one of Hell’s Kitchen’s many unlicensed smoke shops has disappeared, amid allegations that it masqueraded as a New York deli. 

milky way exotics empty
The empty storefront at what was Milky Way Exotics on 9th Avenue. Photos: Phil O’Brien

There were signs of change at 606 9th Avenue (between W43rd/W44th Street) this week, where a smoke shop vanished this week after a court case between landlords and Citi Deli Corp — more recently known as Milky Way Exotics — was decided in favor of the landlords this January. The building’s owners filed suit against the tenants for defaulting on their lease terms in December 2022, alleging that Citi Deli Corp “had impermissibly altered the use of the premises by ‘including the sale of smoking supplies,’ thereby ‘changing the nature of the retail sales’ from a grocery/convenience store into a ‘smoke shop.’” 

The owners of Citi Deli Corp argued that while they were selling unlicensed smoking-related products, they had continued ‘to stock and sell grocery store items and lightly prepared foodstuffs’… in compliance with the lease.” Photos of the store renamed as Milky Way Exotics convinced officials otherwise, and the “deli” was ordered to vacate. According to local sources, the sheriff’s office raided the establishment on April 10, although the shop reopened April 11 and remained in business until this week. W42ST has reached out to the plaintiffs for further comment on the case and will update if we hear back.

milky way exotics cannabis shop
Milky Way Exotics open on 9th Ave between W43/44th St in January 2023. Photo: Catie Savage

City Council Member Gale Brewer told W42ST: “It’s encouraging to see the Manhattan DA’s office working with landlords to get illegal shops out. All landlords renting to illegal shops need to evict. The enforcement powers that the Governor signed into law earlier this month put landlords on the hook for $10,000 a day in fines until the illegal sellers are out. The State Office of Cannabis Management has assured me these new powers will make a difference quickly.”

In February, Mayor Eric Adams, Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, Borough President Mark Levine as well as local Council Members Erik Bottcher and Gale Brewer announced a new wide-ranging enforcement and eviction plan to combat the city’s multitudes of unlicensed shops, whose products have been found to show unknown and sometimes harmful ingredients and often run counter to the state’s current laws against “kid-friendly” packaging

The DA emphasized that enforcement, which has ranged from lawsuits to sheriff raids, would not be a return to the city’s disastrous War On Drugs — which disproportionately incarcerated millions of New Yorkers of color, some of whom have since gained legal licenses. “Black and Brown communities were the brunt of marijuana enforcement — it unfairly criminalized young people, drove up incarceration and failed to make our community safe. I personally saw the impact of that growing up in Harlem, and we do not want to go back to those days,” said DA Bragg at this winter’s press conference. “But just as the end of alcohol Prohibition in the 1930s didn’t mean just anyone could start selling homemade bathtub gin to their local store, marijuana legalization in New York came with rules, and those rules must be respected.” 

Some critics have countered that the state’s slow licensing process has hurt the city’s cannabis industry even more than its unlicensed shops. New York has doubled its licenses since the inception of the program, but there are still just five licensed shops across all five boroughs — all located in Manhattan at time of publication. W42ST has reached out to the office of DA Bragg and City Council Member Erik Bottcher and will update if we hear back.

City Council Member Brewer recently wrote to the state’s Office of Cannabis Management (OCM), urging further proactive intervention against unlicensed shops. “I believe the response to unlicensed cannabis retail stores has been scattered and siloed,” she wrote. “There is insufficient information sharing regarding store locations, landlords and owners, as well as failures to share evidence. I find the city’s response to this public health crisis unsophisticated and OCM’s role in assisting the city unfocused. I am not unsympathetic. Similar to e-bike battery fires and the influx of migrants, illegal cannabis shops are a new problem with no proven or prompt solutions. The new enforcement legislation provides new tools, but we need a foreperson, and OCM must take on that role.”

Mayor Adams DA Bragg Smoke Shops
Mayor Eric Adams and Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg announcing a new initiative to smoke out New York’s 1,400 unlicensed cannabis shops. Photo: Caroline Willis/Mayoral Photo Office

A representative from Brewer’s office said that they had been in contact with the DA’s office about various unlicensed smoke shops — including a Hell’s Kitchen outpost called Exotics Town Convenience Store at 301 W55th Street, flagged up by members of the local block association as in violation of the city’s legally licensed cannabis laws. Members of the W55th Street Block Association, led by Hell’s Kitchen activist Christine Gorman, alerted officials to the unlicensed shop, calling it “a public nuisance, a potential fire hazard and stealing revenue from both the state and licensed cannabis shop owners.”

Hell’s Kitchen residents unhappy about the dozens of unlicensed shops around the neighborhood want to see things move quicker. “Finally, finally, local and state authorities are starting to crack down on unlicensed cannabis shops,” said Gorman. “These shops are not welcome in our neighborhoods. They are a magnet for criminal activity and a public health hazard. Both recent shootings in Hell’s Kitchen were tied to unlicensed stores. And there’s no telling what’s really in their product. You buy alcohol from a licensed liquor store. If you want cannabis, go to a licensed shop.”

Exotics Town Convenience on W55th St
Exotics Town Convenience on W55th Street. Photo: Phil O’Brien

“The city is to blame for the surge in unlicensed weed stores. New York legalized marijuana in 2021, but more than two years later there are still only four legal and licensed dispensaries because the city’s bureaucracy moves so slowly,” added Hell’s Kitchen resident Jeremiah Johnson. “It’s no wonder that dozens of unlicensed shops spring up and that residents aren’t happy about them being everywhere. The city government needs to prioritize getting things done fast over endless hearings, meetings, plans and processes. Otherwise, you end up in this situation where nobody really knows what’s legal and what’s not, or what enforcement should be.”

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  1. One down and dozens to go….hopefully by the end of the year the unlicenced pot shops will be gone. It does not go unnoticed by locals who may not be vocal in meetings that the new “clientele” in the neighborhood is very unsavory, dangerous and locally unwanted in NYC’s long serving truly family and diverse community. HAIL, Hell’s Kitchen/Chelsea…..we need to take our community back and Preserve NYC’s Family gem!
    Thank you to all our leaders especially the sleepless and omnipotent Erik Botcher.

    1. “Omnipotent”? I’m a big fan of Erik’s but I think even he would disagree with being called omnipotent. Maybe “omnipresent” would be more accurate.

  2. Are there actually enough junkies in the neighborhood to support all these places? Or is it all the under age kids sustaining them? Either way it would be nice if the city would enforce the law more often!

  3. The long slow languid and lackluster response of public officials and local representation is the actual scourge on the neighborhood. In this instance they watched the slow-motion creation of a problem that might have been solved, while doing nothing and having a hissy-fit at the same time! Thanks for showing us what not-good government looks like.

  4. I’d also love to know what Mayor Adams and law enforcement intend to do about underage kids smoking weed–a common sight in my Harlem neighborhood. It’s discouraging to see them getting high every morning before school and then more than likely sitting in class in their “happily altered state” and not learning a damn thing. Aren’t these kids behind enough academically because of COVID?

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