Local Cannabis Shops Open Ahead of Recreational Licenses



Empire Cannabis Clubs on the corner of 8th Avenue and 17th Street. Photo: Jess Wade

On the corner of West 26th Street and 8th Avenue in Chelsea, a newly opened marijuana dispensary called Sky Light replaces a long-time local business. Last month, Uriel’s Shoe Repair, a former Chelsea institution, was forced to close because of rising rent. Uriel’s isn’t alone, and many once long-standing businesses are now home to a green cross sign, designating they are selling cannabis for medicinal use. Others are designated with the marijuana leaf.

“They are popping up everywhere and replacing businesses loved by the community,” said longtime Chelsea resident Fernando Rodas.

Last year, the state legalized marijuana for recreational use but it is still against the law to sell, except for medicinal purposes, a practice that’s been allowed in the state since 2016. The application window for the first retail dispensaries to get a permit to open for recreational sales closed on September 26. But ahead of that deadline, dozens of dispensaries were already operating in Chelsea alone. Since it’s not yet possible to get a permit, some retailers are finding loopholes.

Empire Cannabis Clubs, on 8th Avenue near 17th Street is easy to spot because of its long line and large number of employees. The shop opened over a year ago, deeming itself a membership club, rather than a cannabis business, but its product selection includes marijuana, edibles, pre-rolled joints and vape cartridges.

Fatima Afia, a New York cannabis attorney based in Midtown, said the industry is a “gray space,” adding that, “there’s no law that outright makes it illegal to sell cannabis without a license but it’s clear in the Marijuana Regulation Taxation Act that you need a license to operate a business,” she said.

Empire Cannabis Clubs declined to comment on its current operation practices but in response to a Google- verified review, the company said its running a legal membership-based business and does not believe it’s in violation of any laws. Because of this, it said in the review, it hopes to “keep the club moving forward for years to come.”

Last year, the state established the Office of Cannabis Management, which includes an enforcement division. But Afia explained that the office is not a law enforcement agency and its work must be done in coordination with the New York Police Department.

So far this year, the office has issued 52 businesses cease and desist letters for unlawfully selling cannabis statewide. The orders indicate that if the businesses continue to sell cannabis, eligibility to apply for a future license is at substantial risk. It also states significant fines and criminal penalties are possible.

Empire Cannabis Clubs is among those businesses. It received the order in July, according to publicly available documents. Despite this, the store is still in business selling cannabis products.

“I have not seen efforts by the city to close down these shops and that’s why I and several other local elected officials have written to the city urging that it crack down on them,” said State Assembly Member Richard Gottfried, who has represented Chelsea for 19 years. Gottfried is a staunch supporter of access to medical marijuana but does not feel the same rules should apply to recreational sales.

“This is a consumer protection issue. If people are going to go into a store and buy marijuana, they ought to have some assurance that it has been made under appropriate safety guidelines,” he said.

The Executive Director of the Office of Cannabis Management, Chris Alexander, said the office will collaborate with other agencies to tackle the growing issue. “We look forward to working with other regulatory bodies across the state to hold these stores accountable for their flagrant violations of the law,” he said.

But New York State Director at the National Federation of Independent Business, Ashley Ranslow, said the industry’s rapid growth combined with an inexperienced office is contributing to the problem. “The Office of Cannabis Management is so new and while they are trying to focus on getting the licensing process done and getting the first round of licenses awarded, they are forgetting the enforcement part,” she said.

While some are hoping for change, it seems likely that several more dispensaries will open soon. With the permit application window now closed, the state plans to issue between 100 and 200 recreational selling permits before the end of the year, according to the Office of Cannabis Management. At least half will be reserved for residents with previous marijuana convictions and will cost an estimated $2,000 with a two-year renewal period.

“These stores are ugly, empty of customers and yet another seems to open weekly,” said Chelsea resident Bronte Sutton.