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Where to buy weed in New York City
It’s no secret that New Yorkers love smoking weed. One week ago was 4/20, a national holiday for marijuana enthusiasts across the country, but in New York it was just a day like any other.
The scent of marijuana is ubiquitous throughout New York City (on 4/20 as well as on any other day) and here to tell you all about it, looking like he came straight from the Matrix, is Mayor Eric Adams.
New York legalized recreational cannabis in 2021, meaning that any adult over the age of 21 could legally possess and use marijuana. The only problem was that the state didn’t grant any person or company a license to legally sell it, so in reality nothing changed; New Yorkers still had to buy pot in the park, from a delivery service, or from a dirty smoke shop employee’s off-the-books supply.
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Rumors started swirling that the city would begin granting licenses to sell marijuana in 2023. Shops started popping up on every block with bright signs and obnoxious marijuana-themed branding. These shops looked like marijuana dispensaries, but at first they claimed to only sell legal products that happened to be cannabis-adjacent, like CBD.
Quick Aside About CBD
CBD is a compound derived from marijuana that doesn’t actually get you high. CBD is legal throughout the United States and is a favorite among anxious dogs and bored housewives for its purported anti-anxiety and pain-relieving qualities. It was touted as a miracle drug a few years ago, and was sold in myriad forms from pills to lotions to gummies and drinks, but after the hype wore off most people who had tried it agreed that it didn’t really do anything. It is still sold throughout the country and is consumed mainly by those looking to dip their toes into cannabis culture by buying a product derived from cannabis, but without actually catching a buzz or feeling like they’re in a DARE commercial.
I visited a dispensary in California a few years ago and thought that if anyone could explain what CBD does, it would be a dispensary employee.
“Here’s the Strawberry Kush, that’ll get you really high,” the employee explained. “And here’s a 500 milligram gummy, that’ll get you really high. And there’s CBD stuff over on that shelf over there.”
“I’m curious about the CBD,” I responded. “What does it actually do?”
He froze. For a while he didn’t speak or move as his brain short-circuited. It was clear he had never been asked what CBD does. He suddenly snapped back to life, frantically grabbing CBD products off the shelf at random and reading the labels.
“Well, see, this one says ‘Relaxation’ so it helps you relax. And this one says ‘Brain Power’ so… So it makes you think more,” he stammered.
I began to understand that CBD products are a lot like herbal tea - some may claim to help you sleep, promote relaxation, or even “make you think more,” but it’s impossible to tell whether it’s really doing anything.
Back in New York, as 2023 drew nearer, the shops became more brazen and started advertising marijuana explicitly, going so far as openly calling themselves “dispensaries,” even though nobody had a license to sell it yet. The state began the slow roll out of licenses to sell recreational pot, but as of the time of this writing there are only five licensed recreational dispensaries in all of New York City, despite the presence of shops on nearly every street corner openly selling marijuana to anyone who walks in. So what’s the deal? I visited one of these shops in the East Village to find out. Here’s a picture.
I wandered into the store and began talking with the two employees.
“Hey, so do you guys just like, sell weed here?” I asked them.
“Yup, we won’t ask to see a medical card or nothin’” replied the employee who appeared to be the manager. “Come smell this Strawberry Kush! It’ll get you so high.”
“Wow,” I replied. “So how does this all work? There are only five licensed dispensaries in the city, right?”
“Yeah, but nobody really cares. Plus our receipts say ‘convenience store’ so nobody can really tell that this is a dispensary,” replied the cashier, even though the shop’s sign facing First Avenue clearly read “DISPENSARY.”
“Haha, wow, really? That’s so dumb, hahahah,” I couldn’t help but laugh.
“I know, hahahaha, I just work here,” replied the cashier.
We had a good laugh for a minute, then I decided to ask about products. I looked around expecting to see the bootleg marijuana packages you see for sale in the park, but instead I saw a wide selection of legitimate products, including many of the same brands and products I remember seeing in California dispensaries.
“Well, I’m looking for CBD,” I told the employees.
“Sure, we have lots of CBD,” the manager told me.
“Okay, well I was actually wondering, what does CBD actually do?”
The employees froze. Time stood still for what felt like an eternity. You could hear a pin drop. Finally the manager spoke.
“Wellllll, it’s like a really small anti-anxiety pill. Except not really. Like really small. Or like a pain killer, but so small you might not even know if you feel it. Kind of like a Tylenol. Like a very very very very very small Tylenol.” He crossed his arms and leaned against a display case smiling, apparently satisfied with his answer.
“Great, do you guys accept credit cards?” I asked.
“Yeah, of course!” he replied indignantly, as if I had just suggested that his unlicensed marijuana dispensary wasn’t a legitimate place of business. I bought some CBD products for their trouble and returned home.
Sure enough, my credit card informed me that I had just made a purchase at “Chelsea Convenience.”
So these companies on every block in Manhattan are openly operating unlicensed marijuana dispensaries, and they’re not even trying to hide it besides telling their credit card processors to say “convenience store.”
So where are the legal dispensaries?
According to cannabis.ny.gov there are currently only nine licensed recreational dispensaries in all of New York, and only five of which are in New York City. Of the licensed dispensaries in New York City, four are clustered within a few blocks of each other in lower Manhattan, and one is out in Queens near JFK.
Governor Hochul launched a “Buy Legal” campaign ahead of 4/20 urging consumers to travel to one of the five licensed dispensaries in the city to buy cannabis rather than simply buying it through other means. She then unveiled a “verification tool” to help consumers know whether they’re at a licensed dispensary. I travelled to a licensed dispensary to see the verification tool in action. It was literally just a sign that said “New York State Licensed Cannabis Dispensary” with a pot leaf emblem (how original) and a QR code. The QR code just linked to the website for the New York Office of Cannabis Management.
Unfortunately for Governor Hochul, I think most consumers are aware that they aren’t shopping at licensed dispensaries, but simply don’t care. Because licensed dispensaries only exist in two of the five boroughs, most New Yorkers don’t have any reason to travel to one of the licensed dispensaries. As Reddit user bsanchey states, “I ain’t traveling to the LES when my weed guy delivers.”
I’m no expert, but I’m guessing the governor’s efforts aren’t going to move the needle on that sweet cannabis tax revenue New York has been hearing so much about from Massachusetts and New Jersey. My guess is that getting people to “buy legal” would involve some combination of:
Open more licensed dispensaries
Shut down the unlicensed dispensaries
Hang up pot leaf QR codes
Ask people nicely to shop at places with pot leaf QR code
The voice of reason through this whole debacle has been… Mayor Adams?
State laws currently cap fines for unlicensed cannabis sellers at $250, leading law enforcement to play whack-a-mole with over 1,500 unlicensed storefronts selling marijuana products around the city. Mayor Adams has asked Governor Hochul to help crack down on the unlicensed retailers with steeper fines.
“These children are waking up in the morning, going into the store, getting gummy bears that's laced with marijuana, and then they're going to go in school and learn?” Mayor Adams asked incredulously. “Children are getting high on their way to school ... children are taking these gummy bears.”
While marijuana gummies come in a variety of forms (not just bear) he has the right idea. The licensed stores are incentivized to follow regulations to keep their licenses, while the unlicensed stores don’t seem to care about the rules. For example, the licensed store asked to see my ID, but the unlicensed store did not.
But until things change, where are New Yorkers buying their weed? In the park, in New Jersey, from dirty smoke shop employees, from delivery services, from a guy on the sidewalk, from unlicensed shops, and in rare cases, if there’s one nearby, from an official New York State licensed cannabis dispensary.
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