New York's new cannabis reality

There’s now at least one dispensary to buy recreational marijuana legally in New York City, with more on the way. For consumers, it’s welcome progress, but it comes as law enforcement agencies grapple with a surge in smoke shops selling illegal weed, and a patchwork of confusing laws about use and possession.

The first licensed marijuana dispensary opened in New York City on December 29, 2022, to long lines and customers willing to pay $16 to $95 plus tax for 1/8th of an ounce. The decriminalization of recreational marijuana in New York State in March of 2021 under the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act paved the way to license marijuana dispensaries owned and operated by non-profit organizations like Housing Works, and private business owners, including some who were incarcerated under old marijuana laws.  Office of Cannabis Management Executive Director Chris Alexander says they’re working to insure equity as well as safe products for consumers.

Chris Alexander, Executive Director of the New York State Office of Cannabis Management (OCM) says, "We’ve prioritized licensing for those who’ve been impacted by prohibition, who also have previous business experience so we know we’re getting business operators who are ready to come in and operate these businesses in a successful way."

Alexander says the state revenue generated by the legal dispensaries from fees, licenses, and sales taxes will be turned into profit with a purpose. He says skeptics can be reassured that the money will go there because it’s written into the legislation.

"40 percent going to public education, 20 percent going to support drug treatment and prevention services across New York State, and the last 40 going to support the community grants re-investment fund. This is a fund that’s going to fund really targeted community projects like job training, re-entry services, continuing adult education, and after-school programs," says Alexander.

As of January 2023, there was only 1 place in the entire city to buy marijuana legally. OCM says it needed time to properly set up and license a new industry, but the 21-month gap since decriminalization left a void.  NYC Sheriff Anthony Miranda says hundreds of unlicensed smoke shops popped up in practically every city neighborhood - more than 1,400 by a Crain’s New York estimate. Many are selling illegal marijuana and edibles with unknown ingredients. We got an exclusive look as Sheriff Miranda and a multi-agency task force took enforcement actions at some of the shops. Sheriff Miranda says, "Anything else that you see out there is illegal. And it’s an uncontrolled product, so it’s really a public health issue. We know there're been stories about what they mix these products with endangering our communities."

Sheriff Miranda says there’s a widespread misconception that it’s ‘anything goes" with marijuana and that the smoke shops, where you can buy as much as you want, are legal. But he clarifies the law, saying, "So regardless of what they sell you or choose to sell you in the stores, once you walk out of the store, I want to be clear about this, the law says 3 ounces or less, anything above that mark could subject you to some type of enforcement."  

Forbes reports that New York State’s legal cannabis industry is expected to generate $4.2 billion by 2027. Evan Nison, CEO of Nisanco, a cannabis PR and marketing firm, says the economic impact could be even greater.
"There are huge business opportunities. Whether you want to do what we call "plant touching," which are regulated, licensed businesses, cultivation, distributors, retailers, those types of businesses. This entire industry is going to need ancillary services to support it just like anything else. There’s going to be a much bigger impact to the economy than even the studies are suggesting."

As for that aroma of marijuana in the air seemingly everywhere, Sheriff Miranda says the current regulations allow you to smoke marijuana anywhere you are allowed to smoke regular cigarettes.

We go much further into this with our expert panel on the next episode of "Street Soldiers" on Friday night at 10:30 p.m. on FOX 5.