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Tiniest progress on pot: New York’s baby steps to open legal shops and shutter the

Oh, look: New York State has extended the application window for adult-use cannabis licenses. Businesses now have until Dec. 18 to get in the front door. And oh, look: The state has licensed five new legal dispensaries, including one in Astoria, one on the Lower East Side and one in Harlem, bringing the total number of statewide legal retailers to 27.

Meantime, the illegal pot shops that have sprouted up like weeks — which in August, city officials estimated numbered 8,000 — continue to operate with impunity.

Those outlaw stores don’t just crowd out the legal shops in total numbers. Because they routinely underprice them, they have a built-in unfair market advantage. 

They don’t have to bother following the extensive siting rules that have bogged down countless play-by-the-rules retailers. Nor do they abide by the rules about what else they can sell: An illegal store probably peddles candy and soda alongside buds and prerolled blunts. 

Nor are their wares inspected, a serious concern at a time when the smallest trace of fentanyl can prove deadly. Nor do they contribute to the state’s tax coffers, which was a primary rationale for actually legalizing cannabis. 

But because they disproportionately deal in cash, they are magnets for other criminal activity, including armed robbery.

Time after time, New Yorkers have been told that the state and city are finally getting serious about putting the illegal shops out of business so that the legals — including the first-in-line stores to be opened by people with arrest histories — can thrive and make the promise of a taxed, regulated, legal market a reality. Time and again, proclamations have yielded essentially no progress on the ground.

In February, Mayor Adams and Manhattan DA Alvin Bragg announced that they had warned 400 smoke shops of the potential for eviction proceedings for unlawful cannabis sales. 

“Just as we don’t allow endless unlicensed bars and liquor stores to open on every corner, we cannot allow that for cannabis. It’s not safe to sell products that aren’t properly inspected and regulated for dosage, purity, and contaminants,” said Bragg, correctly.

“We’re not going to take two steps back by letting illegal smoke shops take over this emerging market,” said Adams, no doubt meaning every word.

A city law prohibiting landlords from knowingly renting to illegal dispensaries went into effect in August.

As for the state, in May, Gov. Hochul signed legislation enhancing penalties against unlicensed businesses to $20,000 per day for the worst conduct — and in June, she announced that teams from the state Office of Cannabis Management and the Department of Taxation and Finance would be ramping up their efforts to ensure that everyone played by the same rules. 

Early this month, Hochul boasted that four months of “aggressive enforcement” have yielded — wait for it — 246 inspections across the state. We’re not mathematicians, but 246 inspections over the course of four months works out to about two inspections per day. Is that aggressive? Perhaps for a stoner.

Seven long months ago, the journal Vital City toured eight shops within a 10-minute walk of one writer’s Brooklyn home. All of those shops remain open today.

No wonder New Yorkers are intensely cynical about the ability of government to do what it says — and about the stomach of leaders to keep their promises.


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