Rachel Holliday Smith and Gabriel Poblete, The City
This licensed cannabis store on Union Square West advertised its legality while under construction, July 13, 2023. | Marcus Santos/THE CITY
Weed has been legal in New York since 2021, but the state is still working out regulating, licensing and taxing it differently than any other place — and the new system is still budding.
As THE CITY has reported, the licensing of retail dispensaries has been rocky and slow. In that vacuum, illegal pot shops have proliferated across the five boroughs. And much of the rest of the would-be legal cannabis system — delivery, home growing and on-site consumption — has hardly gotten off the ground.
If you’re new to the topic, here’s where things stand in the legal weed world in New York City and the state.
Is weed legal in New York?
Yes, with some caveats. Thanks to a bill passed by Albany lawmakers in 2021, New Yorkers 21 years and older can possess, use, buy, transport, smoke or consume up to three ounces of marijuana and up to 24 grams of concentrated cannabis, used in products like tinctures, vape pen oils or butters.
That bill is the Marihuana Regulation and Taxation Act, or MRTA, which decriminalized possession while setting up a framework for how to sort out all the other rules around cannabis. Importantly, it mandated the creation of the Cannabis Control Board and the Office of Cannabis Management (OCM), which oversee all weed-related rules in the state (more on that below).
Bear in mind: You can’t smoke cannabis in any place where it’s illegal to smoke cigarettes, including public parks, restaurants, bars and the subway.
What’s up with all these pot shops? How can I tell if they’re legal?
As weed possession was decriminalized – but before legal weed shops were properly licensed and opened – not-quite-legal cannabis shops and products proliferated across the city.
You’ve seen them everywhere: THC products in bodegas, weed sellers in vans parked in high-traffic spots, and shiny new head shops filling previously empty retail spaces. Mayor Eric Adams had estimated there were more than 1,500 smoke shops in the city alone.
For months, state officials and law enforcement did little to curb those shops. But recently, Gov. Kathy Hochul has authorized raids on shops in Manhattan in particular, carried out by the OCM and the Department of Taxation and Finance.
But that crackdown has only touched a fraction of the unlicensed sellers, some of which advertise, confusingly, that they are sanctioned and legal.
If you’re looking for the regulated, licensed-by-the-state cannabis dispensaries, look for a blue and white sticker on the front of the location known as a “Dispensary Verification Tool.” It will have a QR code you can use to verify it is on OCM’s list of all the licensed dispensaries.
Dazed at Union Square had its Dispensary Verification Tool displayed even before opening to customers, July 13, 2023. | Marcus Santos/THE CITY
You can visit that list here, or take a look at our map of all dispensary locations:
What can legal shops sell?
The dispensaries can sell a lot of different things, including edibles, tinctures, vape oils and flower (meaning the traditional green plant matter). A notable difference between legal products and the unofficial stuff is the licensed items have to be created with cannabis cultivated inside New York state by licensed cultivators, which limits the universe of sold items. That special strain you like from California, for example, may not be on the shelves in a New York dispensary.
Legal cannabis is also tested, labeled for potency, and taxed (more on that below).
This label is on all packaging of legal cannabis products in New York state. | Via New York State Office of Cannabis Management
Did you buy a cannabis product you’re not sure is legally regulated? Verify it by looking for the universal symbol, pictured at right, which shows a yellow triangle labeled “THC,” a red circle labeled “21+” and the outline of the state in black with the words “New York state.”
What’s taking so long for the legal dispensaries to open?
There are a few factors at play.
First, New York state did something different from other states. It decided that the first legal recreational dispensary licenses would go to people who have been impacted by cannabis-related convictions. In other states, larger companies or former medical cannabis groups were the first to set up shop for recreational use, said lawyer Fatima Afia, an associate at Rudick Law Group, which specializes in representing cannabis industry clients in New York and New Jersey.
“That has led to a lot of multi-state operators and big players to really monopolize the markets in other states and New York has been trying to do something very different,” Afia said.
And while the “intentions have been wonderful,” the outcome is mixed, she added.
The state has struggled to get the dispensaries up and running, in part, because until just a couple of weeks ago, the state had yet to secure the $150 million in private dollars it needed to fund more sites. Additionally, a lawsuit had stopped stores from opening in several regions including Brooklyn for months, and difficulties in securing real estate and capital have also played a role.
To expedite the opening of more stores, the OCM has allowed for licensees to forgo the state-supported sites and open their own dispensaries and to do delivery as well. And the state’s Dormitory Authority, which oversees the real estate portion of the cannabis program, said it will also help licensees opening their own sites with low-interest loans.
Can I get legal weed delivery in New York?
Yes, you can — if you’re 21 or older. But the number of places in New York City that are operating legal delivery services are limited as of mid-2023.
Only five of nine of the legal dispensaries in New York City currently deliver: Housing Works, Union Square Travel Agency, Good Grades, The Cannabis Place and Sesh. (The Cannabis Place and Sesh are delivery-only, meaning neither has a brick-and-mortar retail space.)
That number may change, and the Office of Cannabis Management recommends that customers contact their favorite dispensary directly to see if they will deliver. In case you missed it, here’s the full list of state-licensed dispensaries.
How much is the tax on New York’s legal weed?
A buyer of legal, licensed cannabis in the state will pay at least 13% tax on the purchase. And that does not include a tax imposed by the state on distributors of cannabis products when they sell to retailers. That tax varies by product and potency.
The more THC in the product, the higher the tax, which means oils and resins are taxed higher than cannabis-infused drinks and food, which in turn are taxed higher than flower, i.e. loose buds.
Wasn’t weed legalization in New York supposed to prioritize people affected by its previous criminalization? What’s happening with that?
New York state has already dedicated its first recreational dispensary licenses to those who were directly penalized by prohibition, and the MRTA has a goal of giving half of all licenses to “social and economic equity applicants,” including those from communities hurt by prohibition.
To further right the wrongs of the War on Drugs, the OCM unveiled the Social and Economic Equity Plan. The framework lays out the path for New York’s cannabis industries based on the equity goals of the MRTA. That includes aspects, such as the two-tier market that’s meant to separate the supply side of the market from the retail side — which in theory will allow smaller businesses to compete with larger companies.
As far as tax revenue from recreational cannabis goes, the state outlined that after upfront costs, 40% of revenue would go toward the state Lottery Fund for education purposes, the same amount for community reinvestment grants, and the remaining 20% would be allocated to the Drug Treatment and Public Education Fund.
But the specific regulations about how the revenue distribution will work have not yet been hammered out by the Cannabis Control Board, and those dollars are not flowing yet — because sales figures are still very low, said Afia of Rudick Law.
“If we get more licensed operators on the ground, up and running, there’s more competition for the gray market. I think that’s really where the focus needs to be — get these regulations final, get operators in a place where they can actually open their doors and they can actually make some money,” she said.
How potent is weed in New York?
It depends on the product you get. Legal, regulated cannabis has a variety of potencies depending on what you’re smoking or consuming, and the strength should be labeled clearly.
However, the potency of some of those products was different than advertised, according to an investigation by NY Cannabis Insider that tested high-potency strains sold by licensed growers. That prompted the state to change testing rules. It’s also impacting discussions among lawmakers who are reconsidering the state’s potency tax, as described earlier.
All that being said, there’s a pretty good chance you’re going to know what you’re getting — and have a good grasp of its potency — if you go with the legal stuff, said Sang Choi, downstate dispensary director at the medical cannabis company Etain.
“There is a big difference between 5mg and 50mg. If you consume a cannabis edible, you want to be confident that the correct amount of THC is in the product,” Choi said by email. “The products we offer are required to pass stringent testing guidelines set forth by the Office of Cannabis Management for quality assurance, potency and contaminants so customers will be able to trust what they purchase.”
Do we know how strong the cannabis is from a bodega or unlicensed shop? No, because there’s no standard for testing or tracking it. The publication Hell Gate made an unscientific attempt to answer that question. But, ultimately, it’s “buyer beware” in the unlicensed market.
Can I grow my own cannabis in New York?
Yes, but only if you are 21 years or older and approved by the state to use cannabis as a medical patient. People in that category are allowed to grow and possess up to six plants at home, three of them mature and three immature.
The 2021 law that paved the way for recreational cannabis use in the state explicitly allowed for anyone 21 years old and up — not just medical patients — to grow up to six plants at home. But the rules and regulations around non-medical cannabis home growing have not yet been sorted out by OCM, which means it is illegal to home-grow plants for personal use at present.
Heads up: In New York, there are many places that may not allow cannabis growing on the premises, including within public housing complexes and in co-op apartment buildings that ban it. If you are a medical patient living in one of those places, you can designate a caregiver who can grow on your behalf. Learn more about that here.
Are we ever going to see cannabis bars in New York, the way we have bars serving alcohol?
Yes, almost certainly. But not for a while.
That’s because the rules and regulations around “on-site consumption” licenses, i.e. the licenses a would-be legal pot bar would need, haven’t even been created by the state’s Cannabis Control Board. The board in May approved draft regulations for “limited retail consumption facilities,” which would be attached to existing dispensaries, but nothing yet on full-fledged, stand-alone cannabis consumption businesses.
OCM has no estimate for when that may happen. But when it does, those businesses could look like anything from a smoking lounge to a bring-your-own-edibles movie theater or comedy show.
Not every town in New York state will allow it; some towns and villages already have opted out of on-site consumption. But New York City has not opted out, and Mayor Eric Adams has been vocally supportive of all types of cannabis businesses, including those for on-site consumption.
What happened to the medical marijuana dispensaries? Can I still get cannabis through the medical program? Should I?
Medical dispensaries are still open and operating; there are about a dozen in New York City, which you can find listed here.
And, yes, you can still join the medical cannabis program. As of this month, 122,960 New Yorkers are registered patients. Choi of Etain said recent changes by the state means getting certified has become a simpler process for patients.
“Medical cards are no longer required and the patients do not have to register with the state,” she said. Plus, many more medical practitioners can now certify patients than when the program first rolled out, she added.
The medical eligibility categories have also expanded since the medical program first began, including conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder, inflammatory bowel disease, rheumatoid arthritis and autism.
Whether you get cannabis through a medical or recreational dispensary depends on your health needs and preferences, but be aware that the medical facilities have a few things a regular dispensary won’t, including an on-site pharmacist to help you figure out what products or dosage you need.
There is no sales tax on medical cannabis, Choi points out — but products may not be covered by insurance.
“Medical cannabis dispensaries often offer patients discounts and loyalty programs that adult-use dispensaries may not offer,” she said.
THE CITY is an independent, nonprofit news outlet dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.
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