Cannabis Justice for All

by Eric Adams, Mayor, New York City

Legalizing cannabis was a major step forward for equity and justice in our city. But legalization is about following the new laws, not a free pass to sell unregulated cannabis products. Over the last few months, illegal cannabis retailers have taken advantage of decriminalization efforts, with unlicensed smoke shops popping up all over the city. This “Wild West” attempt to gain market share will not be tolerated. New York City has changed the laws, but we intend to enforce them—fairly, equitably, and thoroughly.

For many years, people of color in our communities were routinely targeted when it came to cannabis law enforcement. Cannabis criminalization was used to harass, arrest, and prosecute our brothers and sisters. Advocates rightly pushed for an end to these practices, and fought hard to put racial equity at the center of New York’s cannabis legalization efforts. Past convictions were automatically expunged or suppressed. People with past convictions for marijuana and their family members are being given priority for these licenses. 50 percent of licenses have been set aside for social and economic equity applicants.

An open and democratic process resulted in the progress so many wanted to see—an end to the “war on drugs” mentality, the establishment of a safe and sanctioned cannabis industry for adults, and a pathway to restorative justice for those who were unfairly prosecuted in the past. Legal cannabis is expected to be a $1.3 billion industry that will create thousands of jobs and generate approximately $40 million per year in tax revenue for our city. And 40 percent of the tax revenues from legal cannabis will be invested back in the communities that bwere most harmed by prohibition. We have a moral obligation to make sure the people who were adversely affected by marijuana criminalization get their fair share of this emerging market. That’s part of the mission of the new CannabisNYC Office. This is a city agency that will make New Yorkers aware of opportunities to participate in this industry, promote equity, and help applicants navigate the licensing process.

In the last month, the first licensed cannabis dispensaries in our city have opened for business. One is owned by a not-for-profit that supports people living with HIV and AIDS; the other by a formerly incarcerated entrepreneur who received priority for a license because he is one of countless Black men who were harmed by the drug war in the 1990s. But these legitimate businesses are facing stiff competition from shops that are not following the rules. Instead of respect for the law, what we have seen recently is the proliferation of storefronts across New York City selling unlicensed, unregulated, untaxed cannabis products.

Those who flout the cannabis tax laws and regulations are robbing the very communities that are finally on the cusp of benefiting from a just and equitable system. We cannot allow that. We’re not going to take two steps back by letting illegal smoke shops take over this emerging market, especially when so many of them are selling unlawful and unlicensed products that could seriously harm consumers. It is time for the operation of illegal cannabis dispensaries to end.

Sheriff Miranda and our partners at the N.Y.P.D. recently took direct action to counter this trend. Over a two-week enforcement blitz, the Sheriff’s Office issued 566 violations and seized $4.1 million worth of product at 53 locations. And this week, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office sent letters to approximately 400 unlicensed smoke shops in Manhattan. The letters state the city will commence legal eviction proceedings against commercial tenants who are engaged in illegal business activity. That includes the unlicensed sale of cannabis, the sale of untaxed cigarettes, and the sale of adulterated products. If owners and landlords fail to initiate timely eviction proceedings against these commercial tenants, the Sheriff’s Office will take over and pursue eviction proceedings.

While we are not ruling out criminal prosecutions for tax evasion, money laundering, or the sale of cannabis to minors, the focus of this initiative at this time is civil enforcement. We want to give New York’s legal cannabis market a chance to thrive—and deliver on the vision of safety, equity, and justice advocates demanded for so long.

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