New York Not Exactly Going to Pot

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New York State legalized the sale of recreational marijuana in April 2021. But now, nearly 30 months later, anyone trying to buy legal pot in New York City has pretty limited choices and a free-for-all retail alternative market has sprung up throughout the city. You may be able to buy something resembling weed in all kinds of stores, but chances are it’s not and the only things getting high are the cash registers of these shops.

The lack of legit places to buy pot has created a strange and very fuzzy parallel universe in Manhattan. Helped by the earlier surge in the legalization and subsequent sale of CBD – a sister plant to marijuana that offers some of the same therapeutic benefits but without the high – a huge surge of smoke/vape/paraphernalia stores began showing up throughout Manhattan.

Call it New Pot City if you will — but certainly this is not how they conceived the plan.

When New York became the 15th state to legalize recreational cannabis – 38 states, three territories and the District of Columbia allow medical marijuana sales – retailers and potheads alike envisioned a swift roll-out of dispensaries.

New York State of Mindlessness

The initial process of implementing marijuana shops was excruciatingly slow. It took New York State six months for the members of the newly created Cannabis Control Board to be appointed. Governor Cuomo’s resignation in the middle of it didn’t help. Then this board took the better part of a year setting up the rules and regulations for growers and sellers, looking at how other states handled it. (Two entire countries, by the way, have legalized pot: Uruguay and Canada.)

Draft rules were rolled out last November, then revised in May and finally became eligible for adoption in August. New applications for cannabis businesses will be accepted starting in early October.

Working off the initial regulations, a grand total of five – count ’em five – marijuana dispensaries have opened in Manhattan, which one assumes would be weed-central for the state, plus four more in the boroughs, according to the list of legal recreational dispensaries posted on the website of the New York State Office of Cannabis Management. According to the same listing, there are 14 other dispensaries outside of the City in New York State. There are also 40 medical marijuana dispensaries in the state, including 11 in the City of New York.

Slow Go

CNBC reported in early September that as many as 400 other dispensaries have been granted licenses throughout the state but have been unable to open because those initial licenses went to those who had been convicted of marijuana possession. This prioritization effort – seemingly to make amends for past actions – is now being challenged in the courts, which has resulted in the halting of new licenses.

As a result, CNBC cited Cannabis Control Board numbers that show as of late August, the state’s licensed dispensaries have reported cumulative sales of over $70 million. Marijuana research firm New Frontier Data projects New York’s recreational market should be generating over $1 billion annually by 2025, growing to $4.41 billion by 2030, CNBC reported.

Contrast all of this with other states, both those that have been at this for a few years and others that have legalized pot more recently. California, according to New Frontier Data, has so far generated $4.51 billion in pot sales this year. Oregon and Oklahoma – yes, Oklahoma, that bastion of conservative thinking and rules – each have over 2,000 legal dispensaries. Montana has 15.1 dispensaries for every 100,000 people. The City of Las Vegas has 2.5 for every citizen, significantly above the average for American cities. New York\’s neighbor New Jersey, which legalized pot in 2021, has 35 recreational shops with a population not much bigger than New York City while Massachusetts, where legal pot sales started in 2018, has nearly 300 legal pot locations. The small city of Northampton, MA – population 29,311 – has 14 alone.

New York City, in case you forgot, has nine legal pot dispensaries. (Do the math, that’s about one shop for every 888,888 people.)

City Slickers

The lack of legit places to buy pot has created a strange and very fuzzy parallel universe in Manhattan. Helped by the earlier surge in the legalization and subsequent sale of CBD – a sister plant to marijuana that offers some of the same therapeutic benefits but without the high – a huge surge of smoke/vape/paraphernalia stores began showing up throughout Manhattan. Most of them have clever names like Day Dream, Lex Hemp and my personal favorite, Bud & Beyond.

They are supposed to sell vape devices, and CBD to smoke and eat along with assorted accessories – and they do – but what else they have on hand is open to discussion. One store on Broadway in midtown Manhattan had a sandwich board outside advertising “gummy’s (their punctuation, not ours), prerolls and oil pens” which could be just CBD…but maybe not.

Go into many of these stores and they will tell you – once they decide you’re not a narc or with the Cannabis Control Board – that they’ve got the good stuff under the counter and will be more than glad to sell it to you. The prices would make any good dope dealer on the street jealous to be sure.

But go into a legit, legal pot store – granted, they have more than a bit of a vested interest – and they will tell you that no freaking way the stuff in the phony stores is legit; it’s closer to oregano than primo weed. Getting high from it might be more wishful thinking and hoping to justify what you just spent than any purely chemical reaction.

One has to think that somewhere in the city, the real deal is still being sold illegally by individuals, not retail stores…just as it has been done for decades. If you’re still not sure what’s real and who is just blowing smoke up your shirt, the Office of Cannabis Management says “All regulated, licensed dispensaries must post the Dispensary Verification Tool near their main entrance.”

Of course, legalization was supposed to eliminate all of this and provide additional tax revenue to the authorities. Just as when lotteries became legal and widespread, the good old neighborhood numbers racket remained, perhaps diminished a bit but far from eliminated.

Weed Whackers

When marijuana was legalized the retail industry looked upon it as the next big thing, a business they could take advantage of and expand their revenue bases. And in some states that has indeed happened. There are marijuana chains opening stores in certain locations: Las Vegas seems to be the obvious choice and our earlier Robin Report visit to Planet 13 there showed it was being done right. It was an Apple store that just happened to sell pot instead of pods and pads.

New York is far behind that curve and while one expects any rollout of something entirely new not to be without its growing pains, the legal marijuana retail business has pretty much been a non-starter, at least so far in New York City. Perhaps that will change over the next year or two with the state’s new processes.

In the meantime, those behind-the-counter smoke shops will continue to flourish, providing a bad high for customers and state treasuries alike. And your friendly neighborhood pot dealer is in no danger of having to get a real job anytime soon.

Most people who smoke the stuff say marijuana makes them feel better. For New York State, it’s just been one long bad trip.

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