New York City’s unregulated cannabis problem hasn’t gotten any better over the summer.
And, on Wednesday, the issue was front and center during the Committee on Consumer and Worker Protection’s first hearing of the fall season. The hearing comes after both the city and state passed legislation to increase enforcement against the roughly 1,500 unlicensed cannabis retailers in the city, mostly geared toward targeting their landlords.
While the hearing focused on two fairly incremental pieces of legislation, Int 995 and Int 1010, much of the discussion zeroed in on concerns about youth consumption of cannabis, and the ease with which kids and teens are able to buy cannabis products from unregulated sellers. Those testifying also called out state cannabis regulators on communication and data sharing.
Int 995, sponsored by Councilmember Julie Menin, would help create a public education campaign on the “dangers of purchasing cannabis or cannabis products from unlicensed cannabis retailers.”
Specifically, it would require the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) to work with the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection (DCWP), and possibly other agencies, on the campaign.
“The campaign would target minors and young adults and focus on the risks of consuming cannabis products adulterated with synthetic cannabinoids and other harmful substances and the risk of purchasing such products from unlicensed cannabis retailers,” the summary of the bill notes.
Int 1010, sponsored by Councilmember Gale Brewer, would require the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications to create a specific 311 category for complaints about unlicensed cannabis retailers. “These complaints would be routed to the agency responsible for resolving the issue,” the bill summary reads.
Joseph Morrisroe, deputy commissioner of NYC311, gave a broad overview of 311 on Wednesday and pushed back on the idea that 311 could play a bigger role in the unregulated cannabis issue.
“While we acknowledge and appreciate the Council’s efforts to combat the issue of unlicensed cannabis shops that have proliferated across the city, and we empathize with the concerns that the Council have expressed this morning, the city does not oversee the licensing of cannabis retailers,” Morrisroe said. “Absent a designated city agency to respond and receive a service request, it is not best practice to create tickets for issues that are beyond the purview of the city.”
Brewer testified during the hearing that, despite the city and state’s efforts to curb unlicensed sales, the number of unlicensed cannabis shops in her district has risen from 63 to 65. Brewer emphasized the need for better, and more centralized, cannabis data related to unregulated sellers.
Public Advocate Jumaane Williams suggested increased fines and closures of unlicensed storefronts, but emphasized that “incarceration is not the answer.”
“These retailers have existed long before the legalization of retail marijuana and have been increasing, especially with a slow legal market that cannot meet the demand throughout the city,” Williams said. “I got to tell you, this is one of the few times that all spectrums of politics are asking for some kind of enforcement for these illegal dispensaries.”
Ricky Wong, assistant commissioner of government affairs for the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, said that the DOHMH is “aware of the increasing presence of unlicensed cannabis retailers as the state continues to implement retailing licensing.” However, Wong said, “To date, we have not seen an increase in adverse health outcomes associated with using products purchased at unlicensed cannabis retailers, nor an increase in emergency department visits associated with cannabis use.”
Still, DOHMH supports the efforts toward a public education campaign around the use of unlicensed cannabis products. Wong also spent some of his allotted time focused on synthetic cannabinoids, like K2.
Brewer sent a letter to the DOHMH last month in which she asked the Department to consider a public health emergency over unlicensed sales, Cannabis Wire reported in a scoop. The Department told Cannabis Wire that it was “reviewing” the letter, but had no other comment.
Meanwhile, much remains unclear about the city’s interagency Cannabis Task Force, which has given few updates since its initial announcement last year. Cannabis Wire filed a public records request with the Department of Finance, within which the Sheriff’s Office sits, for agendas and meeting minutes related to the Cannabis Task Force; the request was denied because “this agency does not have the records requested.”
Brewer asked Wong, specifically, “Does that task force meet? Has it ever met, that task force, recently?”
“I can’t speak to the recency, but it has met,” Wong said, “within this calendar year.”
Communication issues related to cannabis have emerged in other areas of city government. The City Council, for example, was forced to press Mayor Eric Adams’ office for updates about unregulated cannabis sellers, Cannabis Wire reported, waiting months before the Adams Administration responded about specific questions.
Tom Harris, president of the Times Square Alliance, underscored the importance of data and asked for stronger enforcement measures. On Wednesday, he painted a picture of unlicensed shops bringing a chaotic element to the tourist destination: more than a dozen unlicensed shops and at least two shootings related to them. While there are no licensed cannabis shops in the area yet, there’s one interested party who sought support for a store on 8th Avenue, which the Times Square Alliance supports, Harris said.
“I’m shocked that the city administration doesn’t understand that education and tracking complaints alone, absent effective strategies and strong enforcement measures for illegal operators, sends a mixed message,” Harris said. “A bar or liquor store would not be allowed to operate without a license and would be subject to swift enforcement and closure. We feel strongly that a comprehensive approach is needed to achieve the same results for legal cannabis stores.”
Harris suggested expanded enforcement, stronger nuisance abatement approaches, and an “extreme ownership” mindset from the city in which the city takes control of the areas within its power, instead of just passing “blame” to the state. Harris also called for more funding to be allocated to the Sheriff’s Office.
“It’s hard to imagine that we’re so far into this and it’s so screwed up,” Harris said.