NYC Public Advocate Highlights Safety, Equity, And Excessive Delays In Cannabis Retail Licensing

September 6th, 2023

NEW YORK: As extensive delays continue in the licensing process for legal cannabis retailers in New York, unlicensed operators have sprung up across the city. At a hearing of the Committee on Consumer and Worker Protection on the topic, New York City Public Advocate Jumaane D. Williams highlighted several concerns surrounding safety and equity related to these delays and retailers. In his statement, the Public Advocate stressed the safety concerns around unlicensed operators that may appear legitimate, including the potential sale to underage New Yorkers and the potential for unregulated products to be sold by such vendors.

“My greatest concern with these unlicensed retailers is that, along with being unlicensed, what is being sold is also unregulated,” said Public Advocate Jumaane D. Williams. “There is no uniform way to know what an individual is purchasing. Products sold in unlicensed shops often subvert state packaging laws that require clear testing information.”

Since the passage of the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act, the state’s Cannabis Control Board has issued over 450 conditional adult-use licenses, yet less than 25 businesses are currently operating. In New York City, there are 9 licensed dispensaries, mostly in Manhattan. An injunction has further delayed the process for existing license holders. These delays have furthered the proliferation of unlicensed retailers.

At the hearing, the Public Advocate suggested potential pathways for retailers to legitimize their business and expedite the licensing process, including that “One other consideration in addressing this growing issue could be the legitimization of certain unlicensed retailers via transitional licenses, which would ultimately place them under state regulation and ensure health and safety guidelines are followed, and of course, that there are no sales to underage individuals,” continued the Public Advocate. “This expansion could be in collaboration with those who have been part of the legacy cannabis market, with a goal of directing profits and funds back in the hands of individuals and communities harmed by the so-called War on Drugs.”

The MRTA was designed to give priority of cannabis retail licenses to individuals who were most impacted previously by over-policing and unjust enforcement, providing them the first opportunities to be licensed retailers. In his statement, the Public Advocate, a longtime and vocal supporter of marijuana legalization, cautioned that enforcement against unlicensed retailers now must not replicate that cycle of incarceration. Equity in both licensing and enforcement remains critical.

Read the Public Advocate’s full comments at today’s hearing below.

TESTIMONY OF PUBLIC ADVOCATE JUMAANE D. WILLIAMS TO THE  NEW YORK CITY COUNCIL COMMITTEE ON CONSUMER  AND WORKER PROTECTION SEPTEMBER 6, 2023

Good morning, 

My name is Jumaane D. Williams and I am the Public Advocate for the City of New York. I would like to thank Chair Velázquez and members of the Committee on Consumer and Worker Protection for holding this hearing.

In 2021, New York State legalized adult-use cannabis, or recreational marijuana, through the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA). The Act created the Office of Cannabis Management—governed by a Cannabis Control Board—which issues licenses for cannabis retail dispensaries and develops regulations on such businesses. This legislation was monumental in that it gave priority to justice-involved individuals affected by decades of over-policing and unjust and unfair drug laws and sentences, and offered them an opportunity to become licensed retailers. In December of 2022, a licensed dispensary operated by the non-profit Housing Works became the first in New York City to be open for business.

Nine months later, the rollout of dispensaries across the state has lagged, and is currently stalled. As of July 2023, the Cannabis Control Board issued over 450 conditional adult-use licenses, yet less than 25 businesses are currently operating. New York City has a significant portion of that share, with 9 licensed dispensaries throughout the city, mostly centered in Manhattan. Further delays have afflicted existing license holders due to an injunction blocking new dispensaries from opening and the state from further expanding the retail cannabis market under current licensing rules. Hundreds of licensees are in limbo, many of whom have invested ample time and money into legitimizing their businesses after experiencing the negative impacts of harsh cannabis laws.

In the wake of this lag in licensed dispensaries, numerous unlicensed cannabis retailers have proliferated. These retailers have existed long before the legalization of retail marijuana, and have been increasing, especially with a slow legal market that cannot meet demand throughout the city. My greatest concerns with these unlicensed retailers is that along with being unlicensed, what is being sold is also unregulated. There is no uniform way to know what an individual is purchasing. Products sold in unlicensed shops often subvert state packaging laws that require clear testing information. Further, an issue that is of increasing concern is the potential sale of these products to our young people. While it is my firm belief that incarceration is not the answer, we cannot repeat the wrongs we are seeking to address, enforcement is still needed for these unlicensed retailers. I recommend fines, I recommend verification of product, and closure of stores, and I gotta tell you, this is one of the few times almost all spectrums of politics are asking for some type of enforcement for these illegal dispensaries. One other consideration in addressing this growing issue could be the legitimization of certain unlicensed retailers via transitional licenses, which would ultimately place them under state regulation and ensure health and safety guidelines are followed, and of course, that there are no sales to underage individuals. This expansion could be in collaboration with those who have been part of the legacy cannabis market, with a goal of directing profits and funds back in the hands of individuals and communities harmed by the so-called War on Drugs.

New Yorkers, especially those justice-involved due to the possession or sale of marijuana, deserve an opportunity to legitimize their businesses and engage in a just economy for legal marijuana sales in New York. The city and the state should provide these opportunities to rectify decades of over-policing and mass incarceration. The state has to reconcile with the ongoing issues that led to the current injunction, and meet the equity requirements outlined by the MRTA. At the end of the day, there are nearly 500 licensees, and most of them are waiting for a chance to contribute to our economy, provide dignified jobs and career paths, and keep New Yorkers on track to support themselves, their families, and their communities. We must keep the licensing process flowing, identifying a system that works, and that seeks out justice and equity in a city, and what they can do. I’m thankful that they’re having this hearing. I did want to give a hat tip to the sheriff’s department for how they are executing, even from the pandemic, closing down illegal spaces, taking away weapons and I haven’t heard an incident being reported about how they're doing that. 

Thank you.

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