New York City Mayor Eric Adams and Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg announced today a new partnership to combat the rise of illegal, unlicensed cannabis dispensaries across the borough. In a press conference confirming the multi-agency initiative, the D.A.’s Office described the plan to unite with the Mayor’s Office, local law enforcement, and elected officials in an effort to protect New York’s emerging cannabis industry and safeguard consumers from unregulated products.
Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg Fights New York’s Unlicensed Cannabis Stores
“For nearly two years, we’ve seen a proliferation of storefronts across Manhattan selling unlicensed, unregulated, and untaxed cannabis products,” said District Attorney Bragg. “It’s time for the operation of unlicensed cannabis dispensaries to end. 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. And it certainly isn’t fair to competing businesses. Advocates fought hard to put racial equity at the center of New York’s cannabis legalization regime. We want to give New York’s legal cannabis market a fair chance to thrive and give New Yorkers the security of knowing that a safe, orderly system is in place for cannabis dispensaries. Together, we can level the playing field for New York’s legal cannabis market and deliver on the promise of equity and fairness that legalization advocates fought so long and hard for.”
New York’s Real Property Actions and Proceedings Law: A Strategy to Evict Unlicensed Cannabis Businesses
As many as 1400 unlicensed shops selling cannabis products are now operating across NYC, while only two licensed retail stores – Housing Works Cannabis Co and Smacked Village – have opened thus far. A third, Union Square Travel Agency: A Cannabis Store, will launch on February 13th. The awarding of licenses to nonprofits and justice-involved entrepreneurs has been celebrated, but the slow rollout of actual legal dispensaries has made growing the regular industry a herculean feat.
Concurrently with the partnership announcement, the D.A.’s Office mailed letters to over 400 Manhattan smoke shops, warning them of the potential for eviction for unlawful cannabis sales. The Office may seek to leverage a rather obscure provision of New York’s Real Property Actions and Proceedings Law, which requires landlords to evict tenants engaged in illegal businesses. If the landlords don’t take action, this law authorizes the NYC Sheriff’s Office to initiate eviction proceedings on any business in violation.
Over the coming weeks, the various collaborating agencies will determine where evidence of illegal activity exists and notify landlords accordingly of their requirement to begin eviction proceedings. Landlords must make an application to evict within five days of the written notice, or “in good faith diligently prosecute [eviction].” If they fail to do so, the Office will take over and bring its own proceeding against the tenant.
As reported in Gothamist, the city additionally filed four public nuisance complaints against East Village establishments alleged to be selling unlicensed cannabis products, including to minors. Mayor Adams convened a task force this past December to fight the explosion of unregulated shops, particularly as new lab testing results from products at some unlicensed stores revealed dangerous levels of contaminants and metals.
Mayor Eric Adams on Combating Unlicensed Cannabis Stores and Advocating for Public Safety
“Legalizing cannabis was a major step forward for equity and justice — but we’re not going to take two steps back by letting illegal smoke shops take over this emerging market,” Mayor Adams commented. “Today, we are proud to announce we are taking direct action against four unlicensed smoke shops in the 9th Precinct, which will complement our efforts with District Attorney Bragg to hold these illegal businesses accountable. We are laser-focused on protecting the health and well-being of New Yorkers and ensuring this emerging industry delivers equity to those who deserve it the most. I also want to acknowledge the tireless work of the New York City Police Department and the Sheriff’s Office to combat the proliferation of unlicensed smoke shops across our city and keep New Yorkers safe.”
The mayor also mentioned that unregulated stores engage in cash-only transactions, making them ripe targets for robberies. He stressed that the multi-agency holistic approach to shutting down these businesses will be focused on public safety.
It seems authorities are wasting no time in busting stores in some areas. ABC reporter Michelle Charlesworth tweeted about a crack down she observed on the way to the D.A.’s press conference. However, many of the people operating the businesses seem to be unfazed by the idea of eviction for the moment. A few even suggested that New York’s government is shooting itself in the foot by prolonging the license rollout, which means that the small number of legal retailers will continue struggling to keep up with supplies for the enormous demand.
Chris Alexander, Executive Director of the state’s Office of Cannabis Management, had stated in January that the department’s licensing plan was taking its time to ensure social equity applicants could be properly vetted and supported. He applauded the Mayor and D.A.’s partnership, noting, “These illicit store fronts are putting public health at-risk while undermining our ability to build an equitable market that works to offset the harms caused by the disproportionate enforcement of cannabis prohibition, and we are thankful for our partnership with New York City and District Attorney Bragg and these latest steps to shut down unwanted shops. This thoughtful approach builds on our ongoing enforcement efforts and will help propel our ability to stop the sale of these illegal, contaminated products as we continue to build the market New Yorkers intended by following the parameters of New York State’s Cannabis Law.”
A Link to New York’s Past: Are Unlicensed Cannabis Stores the New “Head Shops”?
For some, the D.A.’s invocation of the Real Property Actions and Proceedings Law in this context hearkens back to an earlier era of all-purpose “head shops.” Cannabis and criminal defense attorney Joseph A. Bondy said it reminds him of the lawsuit he filed in 1996 against the New York Police Department, which had been targeting downtown retailers in raids aimed at shutting down sellers of narcotics paraphernalia. Bondy, who is also a Board Member of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) had argued in the lawsuit that authorities were not interpreting the property law correctly, since they couldn’t prove that the products in question were being used specifically for consumption of illegal substances. In the present day situation, Bondy believes that there is one marked difference: The Mayor and D.A.’s Offices are not contesting pipes and glassware sold in these shops, but the marketing and selling of actual cannabinoid products.
"The mayor’s use of New York’s civil real property law savvily averts the arrest and re-criminalization of individuals involved in the unlicensed sale of cannabis," Bondy affirmed. "Under the law, the District Attorney’s Office can compel landlords to commence eviction proceedings against tenants engaged in an illegal business. Tenant-defendants are required to pay legal fees and civil fines, but are not required to be criminally prosecuted or convicted.
These cases are also relatively easy to prove under the lower 'more-likely-than-not' burden of proof of a civil case: the unlicensed sale of cannabis products itself renders a lease void, thus ending the tenancy. At trial, the mere inference a location was used for an illegal business purpose is enough to sustain a conviction. In point of fact, today’s unlicensed cannabis stores are easily distinguishable from the so-called 'head shops' I represented that were targeted by the city in a wave of 1990s-era narcotics paraphernalia eviction proceedings. Those cases involved a First Amendment right to use smoking paraphernalia of one’s choice—bong, hookah, glass pipe, chillum, etc.—for a legal purpose, whereas unlicensed cannabis stores have no such defense. The unlicensed sale of cannabis in New York remains illegal conduct, for which there is simply no constitutional safe harbor."
What Are New York Officials Saying About the Mayor and District Attorney’s Cannabis Partnership?
Other public officials expressed their support for the new multi-agency partnership.
Senator Liz Krueger, the original sponsor for New York’s Marijuana Regulation and Tax Act (MRTA)
I am very pleased to see D.A. Bragg and Mayor Adams thinking creatively about how to use their existing enforcement powers to close down unlicensed cannabis shops. These unlicensed sellers not only undermine the equity goals of our recreational cannabis program, they also put their customers at risk by failing to abide by health and safety and other regulations set by the Office of Cannabis Management. I urge District Attorneys and law enforcement agencies throughout the state to follow their example.
Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine
Smoke shops that illegally sell cannabis products are popping up in neighborhoods across Manhattan, compromising the integrity of the new cannabis licensing process and undercutting the immensely important equity goals of the new cannabis laws. As this new legal industry emerges, we must ensure that businesses that do the right thing are in a position to succeed. I’m grateful for D.A. Bragg’s leadership and thoughtful approach to this issue, and look forward to working with him and local stakeholders to ensure that we are holding illegal operators accountable.
New York City Council Member Carlina Rivera, who helped inaugurate the state’s first adult-use legal dispensary in December
To protect public health, ensure access to safe products, and support legal shop stewards, businesses must be held accountable to the same rules and agencies must commit to the equitable enforcement of those rules. Organizers have worked for decades to create a legal market for cannabis that is focused on social justice and addresses the harms of mass incarceration and the war on drugs. We must take these aims seriously and New York’s program is on track to be the most equitable and competitive in the country. Interagency communication and clear regulations and enforcement mechanisms are critical to its success, and I commend District Attorney Bragg and Mayor Adams for working together to combat the proliferation of illegal, unlicensed cannabis dispensaries across the borough of Manhattan.
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Featured image: NYC Mayor Eric Adams (center left) and Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg (center right) announce a multi-agency partnership on fighting unlicensed cannabis stores. Also in attendance are Councilmember Gale Brewer, Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine, and Office of Cannabis Management Executive Director Chris Alexander (C) Manhattan DA's Office