What the illegal cannabis boom looks like in one New York City neighborhood.
I live in Park Slope, Brooklyn, in a walkup on Fifth Avenue. It’s a busy commercial drag that, like many, got walloped by the COVID pandemic. But as the work-from-home revolution became permanent, freeing many of the white-collar types who live here from daily commutes, there’s been a bounceback.
Another thing that’s filled empty storefronts of late is illegal cannabis shops. Since weed went legal in New York in 2021, regulators twiddled their thumbs while a thousand (or, more precisely, 1,200) of these fragrant flowers bloomed across the five boroughs. They got a precious foothold ahead of the legal dispensaries, only three of which are open so far in the city, all in Manhattan. The head start has been especially hard on people who’d been arrested for cannabis-related charges in the past, who were understandably supposed to get a leg up under the system liberal legislators set up.
Legal weed shops have to follow a long list of rules designed to verify the safety and quality of what they’re selling and stop them from attracting kids. Unregulated shops have no such rules.
Since the whole idea was to structure a regulated, responsible market and not allow a free-for-all, the state now badly wants to pull up the illegal weeds and let the legal shoots take root. It just announced that the first set of legal shop licenses would double from 150 to 300. But that’s sure to be too little, too late in a market awash in shops that don’t pay what are supposed to be hefty taxes, that generally do business only in cash, and that in many cases hawk soda and Skittles alongside weed candy and teen-tempting flavors of buds in packages that explode with color. Legal weed shops, in contrast, have to follow a long list of rules designed to verify the safety and quality of what they’re selling and stop them from attracting kids.
Unregulated shops also outmaneuver the official dispensaries on price. At legal Housing Works Cannabis, which sells from six New York-based brands, an eighth of an ounce of weed costs between $40 and $60 before tax. Black market shops that get their product from elsewhere typically sell an eighth for $25 to $30.
I can’t help but worry that all these walk-in weed vendors send a message to kids that cannabis is not just permitted but exciting.
There’s been some herky-jerky enforcement against the unregulated stores, but even when the sheriff has seized their inventory, they’ve swiftly restocked and reopened. A new push by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg threatens the illegal shops with eviction, and the city Law Department is pressing nuisance abatement complaints, but on the ground, there’s little evidence that much has changed.
As an enthusiastic supporter of cannabis legalization in New York, I get no glee out of busting the chops of businesses that employ people and, yes, occupy vacant storefronts. But I can’t help but worry whether, in addition to undercutting the entrepreneurs who were ready and willing and waiting to play by the rules, all these walk-in weed vendors, often in the immediate orbit of schools and playgrounds, send a message to kids that cannabis is not just permitted but exciting. In January, the education news website Chalkbeat reported that “some New York City school staffers are seeing an uptick in student drug use that is spilling into the school day, and they say it’s starting at a younger age.” The rainbows of potent cannabis candy are especially troubling, which is why it’s unsurprising that a pro-legalization assemblyman has proposed banning it.
The shops I visited featured strains that would sound pretty tempting to teenagers, ranging from candy gelato to sugar cookie to jelly donut to bubble gum to oreoz to space runtz.
Meanwhile, there’s a heightened risk of armed robbery at the shops. In 2022, the NYPD reported 593 smoke-shop heists, which works out to one for every two stores.
Late Saturday morning, all of this motivated me to take a little tour of what’s on offer within a 10-minute walk of my house.
I visited eight shops within a half-mile, and they had a lot in common. There were nice, helpful young people behind the counter. They generally all boasted of product from California, by which they meant to say it was verified high-quality.
And they all featured strains that would sound pretty tempting to teenagers, ranging from candy gelato to sugar cookie to jelly donut to bubble gum to oreoz to space runtz.
About half the time, I had to buzz in.
Exotic Smokers, 16 St. Johns Place
Price: $25 for an eighth, $45 for a quarter, $160 per ounce
How’s business? “It’s alright, it’s alright. We’re giving out good prices.”
Park Slope Vibez, 145 Fifth Ave.
Price: $20 to $60 per eighth
Smokey Joint, 688 Union St.
Price: $30 and up per eighth
How’s business? “It’s waves. On the weekends it’s busier than on the weekdays.”
How do I know this is quality product? “The Cali stuff is really as good as it gets… Very strict oversight.”
Fumar, 320 Fifth Ave.
Price: $25 to $55 per eighth
How’s business? “A little slow.”
Cali Clouds, 348 Sixth St.
Buzzer, and a sign on the door warning away those wearing ski masks.
Price: $25 to $80 per eighth
Guidance: “Everything is licensed, especially the edibles.”
Spark Slope, 86 Fifth Ave.
Price: $25 to $40 for an eighth, an ounce for $140
Noise, 435 Fifth Ave.
Price: $40 per eighth
Cali Convenience, 170 Fifth Ave.
This is a new convenience store that opened just down the street. Amid chips, soda and candy, they have pot accessories but don’t sell weed itself. But the guy behind the counter assured me: “We are going to have it soon.”