New York Daily News: MANHATTAN –Unlicensed marijuana shops are sprouting up like weeds on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

City Councilmember Gale Brewer, who represents the uptown neighborhood, recently dispatched staffers to 61 delis, smoke-shops and convenience stores across her district that she suspected of illegally dealing weed — and the canvassing effort proved fruitful.

The team of Brewer aides discovered that 26 of the surveyed businesses sling pot in various forms without licenses, the Democratic lawmaker told the Daily News.

“You’re like, ‘Oh my goodness, it’s as if every single block has a shop,’” Brewer said. “It’s wild.”

Unlicensed marijuana shops are sprouting up like weeds on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
Unlicensed marijuana shops are sprouting up like weeds on Manhattan’s Upper West Side – Shutterstock

Brewer’s staffers conducted the block-by-block search for marijuana between November 22 and this past Wednesday. They were able to determine weed was being sold by browsing the stores and asking about the inventory, Brewer’s office said.

Fourteen of the shops targeted by Brewer are on Broadway, and several have obvious marijuana-influenced names, like Gold Caregiver Weed Delivery on W. 74th St., according to a roster of the canvass shared with The News. Twenty-two of the shops in Brewer’s crosshairs also sell tobacco products, her office said.

Exotic Smoke Shop on Columbus Ave., one of the alleged pot peddlers on Brewer’s list, was robbed on Nov. 21 by two men — one of whom wielded a gun, according to the NYPD. The robbers stole unspecified merchandise worth about $390, and police had made no arrests as of last week.

When a Daily News reporter visited Exotic on Friday afternoon, a man behind the counter claimed he didn’t know anything about weed licenses. The clerk also said he did not know when his boss would be in, and declined to talk about any details about the store.

At nearby Convenience of Columbus, another shop surveyed by Brewer’s team, a clerk also refused to talk with The News on Friday.

A customer, who declined to give her name, came out of Convenience of Columbus after buying a few pre-rolled joints and said she’s happy there are weed shops in the neighborhood. She also said she hopes the shops secure legal marijuana licenses.

“I hope they get them,” the woman said. “The more stores, the more fun it is to walk around and shop and [have] availability.”

Convenience of Columbus (Zaza Waza Smoke Shop) at 550 Columbus Ave.,  Friday, Dec. 9, 2022 in Manhattan. (Barry Williams)
Convenience of Columbus (Zaza Waza Smoke Shop) at 550 Columbus Ave., Friday, Dec 9, 2022 in Manhattan – Barry Williams/for New York Daily News

Cannabis has been legal to consume recreationally in New York since the state decriminalized it last year. But sales are still illegal since the recreational dispensary system has yet to launch, leaving the city in a gray zone in which unlicensed pot shops have cropped up at a rapid clip.

Brewer — who supports the creation of a legal recreational marijuana market — said a lack of enforcement against illicit weed sales could end up harming the legit system once it finally gets off the ground. She also said her office’s canvass initiative shows the city isn’t doing enough to stop illegal pot pushers.

“I am concerned that the free-for-all environment will become entrenched while disincentivizing sellers to bother seeking a license at all,” she wrote in a letter last week to NYPD Commissioner Keechant Sewell and several other top officials in Mayor Adams’ administration.

Councilmember Gale Brewer
Councilmember Gale Brewer – Theodore Parisienne/for New York Daily News

Part of the problem is that there’s too much ambiguity around which agency should crack down on illegal herb shops, Brewer said.

To clear up confusion, Brewer urged the Adams administration to make the Sheriff’s Office the main agency tasked with conducting enforcement against illegal weed sales, as it already has authority to conduct untaxed cigarette inspections at smoke shops.

“The only government agency with the power and willingness to enforce the law is the city sheriff,” Brewer said. “I am calling on the sheriff to increase inspections at tobacco shops and enforce the cannabis law. Persistent disruption of unlicensed cannabis businesses through seizure and civil penalties is our best chance at limiting them.”

An Adams spokesman would not comment specifically on Brewer’s Sheriff’s Office suggestion, but said the administration is “laser-focused on holding accountable those businesses that repeatedly and willfully flout the law.”

Smoke Favorite and Convenient at 2470 Broadway, Friday, Dec. 9, 2022 in Manhattan.
Smoke Favorite and Convenient at 2470 Broadway, Friday, Dec 9, 2022 in Manhattan – Barry Williams/for New York Daily News

According to data provided by the spokesman, Adams’ administration together with the state Office of Cannabis Management seized nearly 100,000 packages of illegal weed merchandise in the city over the course of a recent two-week pilot enforcement initiative.

“The city is continuing to do everything in its power to hold these bad actors accountable,” the spokesman said.

After a lengthy regulation process delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, New York’s Cannabis Control Board handed out the state’s first 36 recreational marijuana sales licenses last month. Most of the licenses were awarded to individuals with prior cannabis convictions, an effort to rectify what has been widely viewed as an overly punitive previous system.

The state aims to dole out another 150 licenses or so to people with past pot offenses over coming months, and officials have said New York’s first legal dispensaries could open their doors before the new year.

Brewer said she’s encouraged that more licenses are in the pipeline, but worried about the urgency.

“We want the legal people to be able to sell and make money,” she said. “If you have all of these illegal ones opening up, that’s not fair to the legal guy.”