New York’s State Senate hearing this week found flaws in the relatively recent legalization of cannabis. Thousands of illegal ‘pot shops’ have allegedly opened up across the state in response to the legal changes, and senators are saying it’s time for more regulation. They’re looking to the state’s cannabis regulators to close down illegal shops that don’t align with the law, allowing the regulated sale of adult recreational marijuana that was approved in 2021. 

Since the approval of the initial legislation, a slew of bureaucratic red tape and court injunctions have trepidatiously allowed about two dozen legal retail establishments to open, as opposed to the scheduled 160. In an environment where possession of marijuana is no longer illegal, and sales have been decriminalized, many shop owners have attempted to take matters into their own hands. Now, the state faces approximately three thousand ‘pot shops’ that are operating outside of the current strictures of the law.

The hearing showcased a metaphorical grilling of the Office of Cannabis Management Executive Director, Chris Alexander. The Senators were looking for clear directives and specific steps the director was planning to take to shut down the illegal shops. 

According to Senator Brad Hoylman-Sigal, dozens of these stores are located in his district, Manhattan, which includes notable hot spots like Hell’s Kitchen and Greenwich Village. He noted, “A worker at Smoke City on 710 9th Avenue was shot in the leg during an attempted robbery. In January, there was a shooting in front of a store called Forbidden Cannabis in Hell’s Kitchen. And an unlicensed shop at 423 9th Avenue was recently held up at gunpoint.” 

Hoylman-Sigal also commented on the potential for high school students to frequent these shops, posing a problem that he expected Director Alexander to answer. “This is a public health issue, particularly for young people… Does it not deserve a more expedited process for addressing the illegal shops?” To which Alexander replied, “I absolutely agree, Senator… We want them closed as bad as you do.”

Although there are obvious concerns associated with the legalization of cannabis in the state, Democratic Senators, including Hoylman-Sigal, continued to stand by the original legislation alongside others who questioned the OCM staff. 

Manhattan’s East Side was represented by Senator Liz Krueger, who inquired about fines imposed for illegal operations. “If you close an illegal store, and you take the product, but the fines aren’t big enough to actually discourage people from just opening up again,” said Krueger, who noted that $20,000 a day isn’t going to deter the reopening of a pot store. According to Kreuger, “You’ll spend time and resources closing stores… And two days later, they’ll reopen.” The law has already been adjusted for fine increases in the past. 

Alexander agreed with the sentiment, citing the estimated profits that the stores gain and the comparatively insignificant fines.“Even at the 20,000 dollars a day limit for some of these folks who are owning multiple operations across the city or across the state, it is still a cost of doing business,” Alexander said.

In June, the legislative brought new enforcement powers to the table to take on the series of shops. Senator Andrew Gounardes was concerned with the particular lack of action, with OCM initiating over 300 actions and only 16 shops having been permanently closed thus far. “That seems like a startlingly low number, given that we all recognize there are 1,000s of these illegal shops around the state,” Gounardes said.

Simultaneously, OCM has reportedly put its hearing process to levy fines against these shops on pause due to staff shortages. Alexander expressed a clear intention to restart the hearings soon.