Pre-Roll World Cannabis is located at 1726 Second Avenue, between East 89th and 90th Streets | Upper East Site
Pre-Roll World Cannabis is located at 1726 Second Avenue, between East 89th and 90th Streets | Upper East Site

New Call for Crackdown on Unlicensed Cannabis Sales at UES Smoke Shops

The Upper East Side’s Community Board 8 is calling for a crackdown on the proliferation of unlicensed dispensaries and smoke shops selling illegal cannabis throughout the neighborhood, approving a resolution that calls for both the City and State of New York to empower a specific agency to handle enforcement and shut them down. Though, not necessarily for the reasons you might think.

“There have been the number of smoke shops that are selling the drugs illegally and we’ve tried to work with the police, and they really can’t do anything about it,” said board member Judith Schneider.

“This resolution gives [the City and State] a chance to put forth an agency that actually can do enforcement and stop the illegal sales now,” Schneider explained.

Unlicensed THC products were available for sale at this Yorkville smoke shop | Upper East Site
Unlicensed THC products were available for sale at this Yorkville smoke shop | Upper East Site

As the very first legal cannabis dispensaries in New York State receive their licenses through the Office of Cannabis Management and begin to lease space in authorized areas of New York City, a crush of unlicensed dispensaries, smoke shops and convenience stores hawking illicit, untaxed cannabis products have popped up across the neighborhood, seemingly every few blocks.

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The unlicensed sales problem, which is not unique to the Upper East Side, is one that is the result of the legal limbo and so-called grey area created by the slow rollout of the state’s legal recreational marijuana program. 

The NYPD, for its part, is not in the business of busting unlicensed commercial cannabis sales, pointing to the state law legalizing recreational marijuana, which they say tied officers hands in the matter. 

Unlicensed THC products were also available for sale at this Yorkville smoke shop | Upper East Site
Unlicensed THC products were also available for sale at this Yorkville smoke shop | Upper East Site

“The law, as currently written, does not provide an enforcement mechanism when an unlicensed establishment displays cannabis for sale,” a NYPD spokesperson told Upper East Site.

“The law only provides an enforcement mechanism if an actual sale is observed, and even then, the penalties are limited due to issues with the law as written. Furthermore, the state law does not provide the NYPD with a mechanism to close down unlicensed establishments.”

The New York City Sheriff’s Office, which largely handles civil law enforcement like court orders or financial malfeasance, does have authority to seize illicit products, but has only done so on the Upper East Side in connection with inspections for untaxed cigarette sales.

Back in October, the Sheriff’s Office said it busted three Upper East Side smoke shops during inspections. Inside one store, Convenience of Lexington located at 1436 Lexington Avenue, between East 93rd and 94th Streets, the Sheriff’s Office says it found cartons of untaxed cigarettes, illegal flavored tobacco products, as well as unlicensed cannabis products. 

Convenience of Lexington, located at 1436 Lexington Avenue, between East 93rd and 94th Streets | Upper East Site
Convenience of Lexington is located at 1436 Lexington Avenue, between East 93rd and 94th Streets | Upper East Site

New York State Senator Liz Krueger, who represents the Upper East Side, also introduced a bill this year to rein-in unlicensed commercial cannabis sales, creating a new misdemeanor criminal offense, however, despite being approved by the state senate, the measure failed to pass in the New York State Assembly.

One Community Board 8 member with what could generously be described as a shaky understanding of the new cannabis regulations, believes that enforcement should hold off until the legal dispensaries open — illogically concluding that as the licensed stores open, it will be easier to find the unlicensed ones.

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“This is an issue that theoretically will resolve itself in a year, within the next year, as the specifics around licensing get resolved,” said board member Elizabeth Rose, apparently unaware that the programs rules have been finalized and licenses have started being issued.

“Then it become will become very clear who has a license who doesn’t,” she added, apparently oblivious to the fact there there are no licensed recreational marijuana sales in New York right now. 

Unlicensed THC products were also available for sale at this Yorkville smoke shop | Upper East Site
Unlicensed THC products were also available for sale at this Yorkville smoke shop | Upper East Site

“In the meantime, I really am questioning what is the harm that we are seeing,” said Rose, “I get that it is illegal to sell marijuana currently in a retail store, but what is, at the moment, the real harm?”

Community Board members who were more familiar with the problems and the law quickly jumped in to explain why this is an issue that needs efforts and enforcement, because it has already become the wild west on the Upper East Side.

“First of all, unlike the liquor license, they do not come in front of the community board. Then we have no say about their signage. There is a thought that possibly they’re [selling dangerous products],” explained board member Barbara Rudder.

“There are currently no regulated retail dispensaries for adult-use cannabis products in New York State,” says the Office of Cannabis Management, making the situation crystal clear.

“Any products sold on the illicit market are not tested or regulated by the State of New York and may pose risks to public health,” the OCM website warns, “These products may contain unsafe ingredients, contaminants, and byproducts.”

Stickers with a QR code will be used to identify licensed dispensaries | New York Office of Cannabis Management
Stickers with a QR code will be used to identify licensed dispensaries | New York State Office of Cannabis Management

To combat illegal sales that could pose a health risk, New York’s Office of Cannabis Management announced Thursday that all legal dispensaries will be issued a sticker to be hung in the window featuring a QR code that can be scanned by customers to verify the locations are licensed by the state.

As the discussion progressed Wednesday night, another board member took issue with wording of the resolution which cited concerns over the “safety and security,” worried the language was based on outdated notions on cannabis — seemingly unaware of the very real threat armed robberies pose to these cash-intensive businesses.

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“Why is it that the first part … says concerned with safety and security … as if because there’s illegal sales of marijuana and edibles by unlicensed establishment, that safety and security the neighborhood has been compromised? Or are there sort of maybe assumptions being made that because it’s related to cannabis?” asked board member Gregory Morris.

Morris is likely not a subscriber of Upper East Site, otherwise he would have been aware of the two Upper East Side establishments recently robbed at gunpoint that were part of a larger robbery spree targeting 21 smoke shops across Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan.

The Office of Cannabis Management warns that illicit products may pose risks to public health | Upper East Site
The Office of Cannabis Management warns that illicit products may pose risks to public health | Upper East Site

Convenience of Lexington, the same smoke shop busted by the Sheriff, was one of those victims, according to the NYPD. Pistol packing crooks walked off with $350 from their cash register in September.

Less than a month later, police say Pre-Roll World Cannabis, located at 1726 Second Avenue between East 89th and 90th Streets, was hit by the same crew. Detectives say masked suspect armed with a gun swiped $485 from the cash register, as well as $800 in merchandise, just two days after the store’s grand opening.

Two UES smoke shops among 21 businesses robbed at gunpoint
Two UES smoke shops among 21 businesses robbed at gunpoint | Upper East Site (main), NYPD (inset)

Despite these documented incidents, the ‘safety and security’ line was ultimately scrubbed from the resolution that was approved by Community Board 8 Wednesday night.

“We don’t think it’s right that they’re being sold,” said Community Board 8 Chair Russell Squire.

“It’s frankly unfair to the people who are going through the appropriate process and taking the time to get licensed and all of that, many of whom are doing it through various programs that are designed to enhance equity,” he explained.

“We’re not talking about a lot of investigation that needs to go on,” Squire continued, “It’s just things that are going on, just very openly flouting the rules here.”

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