Visions of marijuana

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As legalization looms, we still don’t know what the business will look like in New York


  • Patients with prescriptions for medical cannabis products can purchase them at MedMen, a dispensary at 433 Fifth Ave. Photo: Michael Rock

  • Recreational marijuana is legal in Colorado, where a former gas station has been repurposed as a marijuana dispensary. Photo: Jeffrey Beall, via flickr

The evolution of New York’s marijuana laws could culminate this year with the passage of legislation legalizing recreational use by adults. But city and state drug policy advocates could see their visions of the new era go up in smoke. The items on their wish list include allowing adults to grow their own plants, the establishment of social consumption venues, voiding the sentences of people convicted on marijuana-related charges, ensuring that small business can compete fairly and healing the damage of the “war on drugs” by having the bulk of tax revenues from cannabis go to the communities most affected by it. But the obstacles are many, and among them are big business interests and some old school market realities.

In 1977, New York state decriminalized possession of up to 25 grams of cannabis provided it is not in the public view, in which case it becomes a misdemeanor. Gradual easing of the laws in New York City began in 2014, when Mayor Bill de Blasio ordered the NYPD to treat marijuana-related offenses more like speeding tickets than criminal affairs. That same year, the state legalized medical cannabis in limited forms for a select number of chronic illnesses.

In the summer of 2018, de Blasio took things a step further when he forbade police from making marijuana-related arrests except in special circumstances. In November, voters ended Republican control of the state senate, removing a major roadblock to legalization. And just last month, Governor Andrew Cuomo, who had softened on the issue of legalization after Cynthia Nixon used it as a cudgel against him during the gubernatorial race, announced that he would push to legalize recreational use in 2019.

Assembly health committee chairman Richard Gottfried, a longtime proponent of legal weed in New York, is optimistic about the impact of the eventual legislation, regardless of its form. He compared its rollout to existing legislation designed to allow local vineyards and breweries to compete effectively with major wine and beer makers.

“There is widespread agreement that we don’t want the industry to be dominated by large, wealthy corporations,” Gottfried said. “We’ll be trying to strike a balance to make sure the system generates a fair amount of revenue ... but also affordable enough that it can effectively compete with unregulated street sales.”

Despite Gottfried’s reassurances that marijuana legalization in New York will be a smooth process, some people more directly involved in the city’s weed scene aren’t as hopeful.

“The way they’re planning ... it’s really nothing but corporations that are going to get involved ... small people are not going to get a dime out of it,” said one West Village head shop owner, who preferred to remain anonymous. “It’s very good for people who are sick and who want to use it ... but for retail stores, it’s not gonna do much.”

Sean, who sells marijuana, and who asked that his last name not be used, doesn’t feel that legalization will affect him “in the slightest.” “The black market has more avenues to directly reach the consumer,” he said. “There’s less barriers, regulations, taxes, etc. If it was legalized tomorrow, I would not lose a single coin.”

As Sean sees it, the dealers who will be hurt most by legalization are the city’s famous high-end, illegal weed delivery services, such as those seen in the 1998 stoner film “Half Baked,” whose business models will make it almost impossible for them to beat the prices that legal dispensaries are likely to offer.

Daniel Yi, senior vice president of corporate communications at MedMen, a California-based chain of marijuana dispensaries with a location at Fith Avenue and 39th Street, disagreed that a legal weed scene would be unable to compete with underground dealers.

“The hallmark of legalization means regulations and rules, and that means we need to enforce them in order to have a legal and compliant industry,” Yi said. “We expect and anticipate that the authorities in New York will crack down on illegal activities.”

The legalization process is in its early stages, and there are many questions still to be answered. How the final legislation is implemented, and whether corporations, small businesses or underground dealers will dominate the city’s weed scene, remains to be seen.

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