Illegal cannabis shops have been flourishing in New York City since marijuana was legalized for adult use in March 2021. But with the first licensed recreational dispensaries set to open by the end of this year, Mayor Eric Adams is cracking down on illegal sales.
At a press conference on Thursday afternoon, Adams announced the creation of a joint task force to weed out illegal dispensaries. It is a partnership between the New York City sheriff’s office, the NYPD, the city’s Department of Consumer and Worker Protections and the New York State Office of Cannabis Management.
The task force is targeting unlicensed sales of tobacco and vapes in addition to unregulated THC products. And it’s already getting to work. The agencies inspected 53 storefronts across the city and seized more than 100,000 illegal products worth about $4 million over the course of two recent weeks, Adams said.
“To those who believe this is going to become the Wild, Wild West of cannabis sales, we are saying clearly and loudly, ‘No, it is not,’” Adams said.
The task force issued 500 civil violations and 66 criminal summonses, according to Sheriff Anthony Miranda. Those violating the law could also face fines, added Chris Alexander, executive director of the state Office of Cannabis Management.
“Our goal is not to incarcerate,” Adams said. “It is to confiscate and educate.”
Adams said store operators would be educated about how cannabis licensing works in New York — in case they weren’t already aware. But he did not rule out trying to shut down some businesses altogether.
Dasheeda Dawson, the founding director of Cannabis NYC, Adams’ initiative to develop the industry, drew a distinction between those who sold weed before it was legalized and the “recent proliferation of visible, unlicensed smoke shops.” She said the city is still committed to helping underground dealers transition into the legal industry.
“The recent rise of these highly visible stores selling illegal products has obviously and rightfully caused concern for many New Yorkers,” Dawson said.
Councilmember Gale Brewer held a town hall on Tuesday evening on the proliferation of these storefronts on the Upper West Side. She said her office found at least 26 shops selling cannabis without a license between West 108th Street and West 54th Street.
Adams went on to talk about the dangers of unregulated cannabis products, noting that some are packaged like candy and could appeal to children. Licensed products are subject to strict regulations about how they can be packaged and marketed.
Some products sold at unlicensed shops in New York City are also tainted with contaminants such as E. coli and salmonella bacteria, and may not contain the amount of THC indicated on the label, according to a recent report commissioned by the New York Medical Cannabis Industry Association. The association represents operators who will also have the opportunity to transition into the broader cannabis market in the coming months.
Earlier on Thursday, Gov. Kathy Hochul announced that the state has created a special seal paired with a QR code to be posted in store windows that will let consumers know if a shop is licensed to sell marijuana.
Adams said he aims to tweak state laws around marijuana in order to make it easier to crack down on unlicensed storefronts. But he would not share a specific legislative agenda on Thursday. He said that will be developed in collaboration with cannabis advocates.
This story has been updated with additional information.