Cannabis is legal in New York, but sales aren’t — yet.
That hasn’t stopped unlicensed cannabis sales from happening out of the windows of converted food trucks, in “sticker shops,” at street fairs, and in overt dispensary storefronts that haven’t been given the regulatory approval to open their doors.
Lawmakers passed the Marihuana Regulation & Taxation Act (MRTA) last March. The Office of Cannabis Management (OCM) has since slowly begun to work toward reining in unlicensed cannabis sellers, in part through reiterating what’s legal, as well as through the 52 cease and desist letters that regulators said they sent to unlicensed operators.
It’s a balancing act between education and enforcement, Cannabis Control Board Chair Tremaine Wright said at CWCBExpo at the Javits Center in Manhattan on Friday, but was firm that non-medical sales are currently illegal.
“It is an illegal sale and transaction,” Wright said, adding that unlicensed operators will eventually hear from the Department of Taxation and Finance.
“This is our window for education. This isn’t a window forever,” Wright said.
“We are the largest market in the world,” Wright added. “We’re about to tax and regulate that market.”
New York City Mayor Eric Adams also gave roughly three minutes of remarks at the industry event, emphasizing that the “magic term is equity,” in New York’s approach to legalization. Adams also noted the move away from “heavy-handed policing,” which led to disproportionate cannabis convictions for people of color.
“Welcome here. Enjoy yourself. Light up. But most importantly, spend some money. We want your money,” Adams said before walking off stage.
More recently, lawmakers took a swing at penalties related to unlicensed sales. Sen. Liz Krueger, who represents a swath of Manhattan’s east side and was a key sponsor of MRTA, introduced Senate Bill S9452 in late May. The bill, which cleared the Senate but not the Assembly before the end of the session, would have made it a class A misdemeanor for a “distributor of adult-use cannabis products or a retail seller of adult-use cannabis products to sell any such products while not registered to do so.” Further, it would have given the commissioner of taxation and finance the power to “revoke the certificate of registration of the sale of adult-use cannabis” and given OCM more latitude to “provide enforcement.”
“This bill was prompted by the difficulty of enforcement against several illegal cannabis stores that have been hard to shut down under the existing statute,” Krueger’s spokesperson Justin Flagg told Cannabis Wire. “Several” of Krueger’s legislative colleagues have “raised concerns about these stores,” Flagg added, and she worked with OCM on “strengthening their enforcement powers and closing loopholes that have made enforcement difficult.”
Another enforcement bill came from Sen. Tom O’Mara, who represents a district that includes five counties across the Southern Tier and Finger Lakes regions of upstate New York. Senate Bill S9365, which didn’t advance out of committee, would have defined “unlawful activities of persons utilizing commercial establishments as a front to distribute cannabis in violation of the Cannabis Control Law, and to impose civil penalties against these entities for initial and recurrent violations.”
Most of the bills introduced didn’t have to do with enforcement, but covered areas like oral fluid testing for impairment and underage consumption of cannabis, as Cannabis Wire recently reported.
Sen. Diane Savino introduced Senate Bill S8837, which aimed to “add coverage of medical marijuana to public insurance programs and clarify that it may be covered by private insurance.” Versions of this bill have been introduced several times since 2017.
One bill did clear the legislature in the session’s final days/weeks: A 9282, sponsored by Assemblymember Donna Lupardo.
The bill gives a stronger voice to the state’s hemp industry by encouraging the state’s Agriculture Commissioner to “consult and cooperate with the New York state urban development corporation” and the “New York State Hemp Workgroup” and “representatives of industries that currently use, or may potentially use, industrial hemp in their products” as the state develops the hemp industry.
Back in February, there was one major bill that sailed through the legislature and to Gov. Kathy Hochul’s desk: Senate Bill S8084A, which jumpstarted the state’s forthcoming adult use cannabis industry and lended a hand to the state’s struggling hemp farmers. The law, which Hochul signed in February, was timed with New York’s tight growing season to allow hemp farmers to grow and distribute cannabis for adult use ahead of the broader launch of the state’s adult use industry.
“New York State will continue to lead the way in delivering on our commitment to bring economic opportunity and growth to every New Yorker in every corner of our great state,” Hochul said at the time.