City Continues to Address Issues with Illegal Smoke Shops

Mayor Eric Adams and Council Member Gail Brewer at the Mayor and District Attorney Bragg’s joint announcement for combating illegal smoke shops. Image Credit: Caroline Willis / Mayoral Photo Office.

On January 18th, 2023, the New York City Council’s Committee on Health held an oversight hearing to discuss the surge of unlicensed smoke shops citywide and related safety issues. The oversight hearing was held jointly with the Committee for Consumer and Worker Protection and the Committee for Oversight and Investigations.

Council Member Gale Brewer, who chairs the Committee of Oversight and Investigations, chaired the hearing. Council Members Marjorie Velazquez and Lynn Schulman co-chaired the hearing. The hearing was prompted by a canvassing of Council Member Brewer’s district, at her urging, to determine the number of smoke shops and other stores selling cannabis illegally. Council Member Brewer testified about several concerns, including that agencies need to implement practical enforcement efforts that prevent illegal smoke shops from unfairly competing and selling harmful products that are not inspected and could contain contaminants like metals or pesticides.

City Agency and Public Testimony

Anthony Miranda, the City Sheriff, testified about the efforts of the Compliance Taskforce, a two-week pilot program initiated by the Deputy Mayor’s Office of Public Safety, led by the Sheriff’s Office in conjunction with the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection and the New York Police Department and joined by the New York State Office of Cannabis Management. The task force is formed of a group of enforcement personnel who work together to use their independent authority to address illegal activities in smoke shops around the city. After the two-week pilot program, the task force analyzed the information from its efforts and continued enforcement, using the data from the pilot program to identify illicit shops and conduct short-term and long-term investigations.

John Chell, the NYPD Chief of Patrol, testified about the NYPD’s efforts to assist the task force in enforcement. The NYPD conducts “buys” at smoke shop locations they suspect sell illegal products based on resident complaints or intelligence through its Narcotics Division and Intel Division.

Kim Kessler, the Assistant Commissioner for the Bureau of Chronic Disease Prevention, also testified on behalf of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Kessler testified about how the Department of Health educates New Yorkers about existing cannabis laws and the risks of buying unlicensed cannabis. Kessler talked about how the agency has created resources for New Yorkers that outline facts about cannabis law, including the importance of buying from licensed retailers when possible. Kessler also talked about the agency’s partnerships with the Department of Education, Office of School Health, and Office of School Wellness to organize training sessions for school staff and school-based clinicians to make young people aware of the risks of using tobacco products.

A Department of Consumer and Worker Protection representative also testified about the agency’s role in educating New Yorkers about appropriately licensed businesses in the community. The representative also talked about its partnership with the task force to identify shops operating without a license, conduct inspections, and issue violations, when necessary.

There was also public testimony from several community leaders and business owners who raised their concerns about unfair competition and upholding equity-centered cannabis legalization. The state is currently in the process of issuing licenses for legitimate dispensaries, which are subject to heavy regulation and oversight. There are only a few licensed dispensaries that have opened in New York City since the year began, which have to compete with an ever-growing list of unlicensed smoke shops.

To watch the hearing or read more testimony, click here.

Response From Mayor Eric Adams and Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg

On February 7, 2023, Mayor Eric Adams and Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg announced a joint enforcement measure with local law enforcement and elected officials to stop illegal smoke shops from operating throughout Manhattan.

Adams and Bragg announced two initiatives. First, the NYPD filed complaints in the Supreme Court, New York County, against four unlicensed establishments selling cannabis in the Ninth Precinct, which covers much of the East Village in Manhattan. The establishments are Runtz Tobacco, located at 14 First Avenue; Broadway located at 736 Broadway; Saint Marks Convenience & Smoke Shop, located at 103 Saint Marks Place; and Sogie Mart Rolls & Puff, located at 24 Avenue A. The complaints, which can be read here, allege the defendants are creating a public nuisance and violating state cannabis laws.

For the second initiative, the Manhattan District Attorney’s office mailed letters to more than 400 known smoke shops in Manhattan, informing landlords that the District Attorney’s office intends to use its authority under the Real Property Law to require owners and landlords to evict commercial tenants conducting illegal business activity, including the unlicensed sale of cannabis. The letter states that if the owners and landlords do not promptly initiate the proceedings themselves, the District Attorney’s office may bring proceedings against the tenant as if it were the landlord.

In the next few weeks, the District Attorney’s office will work with community partners to determine where evidence exists of unauthorized cannabis sales and other illegal activity and notify landlords of the real property requirement to begin eviction proceedings. The District Attorney’s office noted that they are not ruling out criminal prosecutions of these shops for tax evasion, money laundering, or sale of cannabis to minors, but this initiative focuses on civil enforcement.

Council Member Brewer said of the plan, “I have to stress what a feat this is by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg. […] We need a creative solution to shutter stores quickly without bringing criminal charges, and D.A. Bragg found it. I hope the city’s four other district attorneys are able to take the same approach in their jurisdictions.

However, some council members noted that although this was a step forward, it should not be the end of the city’s enforcement efforts. Council Member Erik Bottcher said of the plan, “Minors should not have easy access to smoke products of any kind, and more needs to be done to stop unscrupulous businesses from selling them. We hope this is the beginning of a more serious enforcement against illegal smoke shops.”

By: Jessica Kovac (Jessica is the CityLaw intern and a New York Law School student, Class of 2024.)




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