How to Shut Down New York’s Unlicensed Pot Shops
Put a cop in every store and issue a fine for every illegal sale.
The dubious new regime of legal marijuana in New York is going about as poorly as anyone could have expected. If New York wants legal pot, it will have to do a better job at it than this. Stymied by its commitment to “equity,” the state has taken years to roll out the first sales licenses. As a result, the city has only three legally operating dispensaries, all within half a mile of one another. Meantime, some 1,500 unlicensed shops have cropped up across the city, selling pot with impunity.
Mayor Eric Adams, to his credit, has condemned these illegal upstarts. And he’s assembled a task force, led by the New York City Sheriff’s Office, that is responsible for raiding shops and seizing marijuana where it can. The task force has claimed some success, seizing more than $4 million in marijuana products last year alone.
But this strategy has real limits. In February, the sheriff’s office inspected just 34 unlicensed shops, a small fraction of the total. The raids also don’t seem to deter sales. Instead, shops just restock after the raids are over. And, as The City reported, the union that represents sheriff’s deputies is raising questions about whether the office even has the legal authority to conduct inspections of pot shops, alleging that its statutory authorization permits them to inspect only stores that sell “cigarettes or tobacco” for licensing compliance.
Mayor Adams has argued that the leniency of the state’s marijuana laws has tied his hands, citing the paltry fine—$250—imposed on the unlawful sale of less than three ounces of cannabis. Both he and Governor Kathy Hochul are seeking action from Albany to toughen rules. Meantime, Adams’s office, and that of Manhattan district attorney Alvin Bragg, are pursuing novel ways to shut down the shops, including eviction lawsuits.
Adams is right that Albany’s establishment of tougher penalties, and a clearer articulation of enforcement power, would make his job easier, and he and Bragg deserve credit for creatively tackling the problem. But they could also use the enforcement powers that Albany has given them more vigorously.
Specifically, rather than focusing on harsh but intermittent crackdowns, Adams should charge his task force with identifying and imposing a fine in every instance where an illegal dispensary makes a sale. Doing this would be as simple as putting an officer—from the NYPD or from the sheriff’s office—in every known unlicensed dispensary. His job would not be to conduct searches or make arrests but simply to record the sale and issue a notice of violation. Over the course of just one day, a single shop could rack up thousands of dollars in charges, making this approach one of the few police tactics that pays for itself.
We would expect from this strategy one of three outcomes. Some dispensaries would simply stop making sales, hoping to wait their assigned officer out. But they could only do so for so long before the high cost of rent and operation either forced them to sell or go out of business. Alternatively, some operators would refuse to pay their ever-mounting fines, at which point they could be arrested, imprisoned, or subjected to civil proceedings for collection.
Some operators might elect to pay the fine and pass it on to the customer as part of the cost of doing business. Doing so would impose a substantial premium, however. In New York City, weed goes for about $240 per ounce. On the low end, that would mean customers buying an “eighth” for $30 would pay an 830 percent premium to cover the fine. Even those buying three ounces—the maximum amount before the sale becomes a misdemeanor—would still be paying a 34 percent surcharge. Insofar as increasing the price of drugs reduces the amount purchased, this may still be enough to cripple narrow-margin pot shops financially.
This approach may seem a little bizarre, but it applies the insight that punishing an offense every time it’s committed can have a major deterrent impact. In criminology terms, given that the severity of the punishment for small marijuana sales is low, the administration can step up the certainty of these punishments to obtain a deterrent effect.
An example from the NYPD’s own history shows how a high-certainty enforcement approach can work. In the 1990s, the department went after the city’s infamous “squeegee men,” who would accost parked cars to rinse them down and demand payment. NYPD commissioner William J. Bratton made cracking down on squeegee men a top priority, issuing a clear warning that they would no longer be tolerated and instructing beat cops to arrest every squeegee man they saw. Squeegee activity collapsed. The late policy guru Mark A. R. Kleiman attributed this success to “dynamic concentration,” the strategy of dedicating a burst of police resources to a significant problem, addressing it in every instance for a short period, and thereby effectively deterring future offenses, after which enforcement becomes a trivial issue.
Unlicensed pot shops, which are stationary and have commercial relationships with landlords, are even easier targets than squeegee men. Simply by holding them accountable every time they break the law—which they do dozens, if not hundreds, of times a day—the mayor can significantly deter their behavior. Indeed, this certainty-focused approach is likely to be more effective than the intermittent severity of the current raid strategy.
While some will object to their presence, cops have every reason to be in the shops: not only are these establishments open to the public, but they are also engaged in illegal activity. Similar programs, under the moniker “cops in shops,” are often used to deter underage alcohol purchasing. While the officer is usually undercover in such programs, here he would be out in the open. The city’s marijuana dispensaries are also frequent robbery targets; a dedicated police presence could help bring that problem under control, too.
Albany should still increase the city’s power to hold rogue dispensaries accountable. But the state is clearly far more concerned with “equity’ than it is with enforcing the law. This is both frustrating and foolish: if the state wants a “successful” legal weed regime, it needs to stop illegal operators from outcompeting legal ones by flouting regulations.
Mayor Adams, at least, seems to have his head in the right place. While he waits for Albany to give him more tools, he can use the ones he already has to far greater effect.
Photo by Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images
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