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‘This is a public health issue‘; NYS Lawmakers Call for a Further Crackdown on Illegal Pot Dispensaries

Published: October 31, 2023
A woman walks by a smoke shop displaying a marijuana leaf in the window as authorities step up a crackdown on unlicensed smoke shops June 16, 2023 in New York City. (Image: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

On Oct. 30, during a legislative hearing on the legal cannabis industry in New York State, Sen. Brad Hoylman-Sigal, representative for the 27th State Senate District, took the time to reveal nearly a dozen illegal cannabis dispensaries in his district, and lamented that the state is doing little to address them.

“What are we going to do about it?” He asked at the hearing, adding that, “As much as this undermines the legal market, this is a public health issue, particularly for young people.”

In January this year, the NY Post revealed that an astounding 1,400 illegal pot dispensaries had sprung up in the city, a situation that lawmakers referred to at the time as the “Wild, wild west.”

While hundreds, if not thousands of illegal pot dispensaries are operating in the city, and more broadly in the state, currently there are only 26 legal dispensaries listed on a state database shared by the state’s Office of Cannabis Management, 11 of which are in the Big Apple.

New York City Sheriff, Anthony Miranda, testified in January that existing laws were making it difficult to crack down on the illegal dispensaries, saying that the only tool they had was to levy a fine of just $250.00.

Since then, Gov. Kathy Hochul approved a law that would allow authorities to fine illegal dispensaries upwards of $20,000 per day of operation. 

Sen. Liz Krueger, one of the authors of the state’s cannabis law, also expressed frustration with the situation, saying that some blocks in her district had more than two illegal cannabis shops.

“What do we need to do? Because clearly whatever we did isn’t really working,” she said at the hearing on Monday, adding that, “Maybe it does require legislative action as opposed to just regulatory action.” 


Pro-pot lawmakers to blame

Assemblyman Sam Pirozzolo (R-Staten Island) says that “Democratic socialist lawmakers”  have only themselves to blame for the chaos because they failed to address enforcement of the cannabis laws when they were first implemented.

“Democratic socialist lawmakers have only themselves to blame. They dropped the ball 100 percent when they didn’t deal with enforcement when they approved the law,” he said according to the NY Post.

“What did they think was going to happen? They didn’t want to deal with enforcement. They don’t want to put people in jail,” Pirozzolo added.

Meanwhile, Hoylman-Sigal is calling for ways to close down the illegal shops faster. 

“Does it not deserve a more expedited process for addressing the illegal shops,” he said while the state’s chief regulator for cannabis admitted enforcement of the state’s cannabis laws was still a work in progress.  

Chris Alexander, executive director of the state Office of Cannabis Management, said at the hearing that he agreed with Hoylman-Sigal saying, “I absolutely agree, senator… We want them closed as bad as you. We would love a more efficient [way of cracking down].”


Lots of ‘finger pointing’

At the hearing, the Upper West Side’s Councilwoman, Gale Brewer, said state and city agencies and prosecutors are spending too much time “finger pointing at each other” rather than working to resolve the issue, and took aim at NYC Mayor Eric Adams accusing him of failing to crackdown on the dispensaries as promised. 

“Confiscation is not working, and I have not seen aggressiveness from the administration,” she said, adding that, “There is no way out of this problem without greater involvement from the NYPD … Unlicensed cannabis stores are large scale criminal operations. Possession of more than five pounds of cannabis is a felony.  Sale of more than 16 ounces is a felony. Sale to a minor is a felony,” Brewer said. 

Brewer argues that the current cannabis laws need to be amended to provide the sheriff’s office more authority to crack down on illegal dispensaries and that the city’s Health Department should play a more active role in addressing the problem.