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Wednesday, February 8, 2023

New York’s first weed shop opens to big crowds and happy customers

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Kenneth and Dean, the stay-at-home dad, were the first to line up at the cannabis dispensary in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. He said he wanted to be a part of history after he was arrested for weed in Houston, where he previously lived.

When he finally got inside, after a wait of more than four hours, he bought two bags, each containing an eighth of an ounce of a smokable flower called Gorilla Glue, for about $90.

The kind of transaction that was taking place was out of sight. But Mr. Woodin’s Thursday purchase was made on the first day of licensed recreational cannabis sales since it was legalized by the state last year.

“This is part of history,” said Mr. Woodin, 33. “I don’t want to feel like a criminal anymore.”

The Thursday sales at a dispensary run by Housing Works, a nonprofit that supports people with HIV and AIDS, marked the state’s pivot from decades of decriminalizing marijuana to the start of a sanctioned industry expected to generate $4 billion over the next five years.

The state passed a first-of-its-kind law in March 2021 that prioritized people affected by marijuana enforcement for early job opportunities in the new industry. But rollout has been slow, and as of Thursday, consumers had no way to legally purchase the products despite the glut of bootleg stores and vendors.

The mood inside the infirmary, Housing Works Cannabis Co. , on Broadway and East 8th Street, ceremonially and triumphantly. At a morning ceremony, activists cheered organizers and lawmakers who made speeches to mark the day.

“New York is a pioneer,” said Chris Alexander, executive director of the Office of Cannabis Management and the dispensary’s first customer before the doors opened to the public at 4:20 p.m.

By mid-afternoon, a line of customers had formed stretching out from the storefront near Astor Place and Lafayette Street. Inside, a DJ played upbeat music while guests sipped appetizers and fruity drinks. Store managers said they expected more than 2,000 visitors on Thursday and to sell out the products by Saturday.

At 7 p.m., closing time, store managers cut the line, and dozens of customers lucky enough to make the cut were waiting inside to buy items an hour later.

Even as supporters celebrated the start of legal sales at long last, ramping up the new industry was mired in delays. Gov. Kathy Hochul expected 20 stores to open by the end of the year, but Housing Works Cannabis Co. She will be single for a while.

More stores are expected to come online early next year, but the resources promised by the state haven’t materialised, and a legal challenge has stalled progress in areas including Brooklyn and Buffalo.

State regulators awarded 36 of the 175 retail licenses available in November to businesses owned by people with marijuana convictions nationwide and nonprofits serving people who have been swept into the drug enforcement network.

But the state failed to deliver on its promise to provide the first 150 businesses granted retail licenses with storefronts and start-up loans, forcing regulators to ease some restrictions and companies to review the plans. Since the licenses were issued, regulators have said companies can secure their own locations and begin making deliveries before their storefronts open.

The New York State Residential Housing Authority, a state agency responsible for securing sites and raising money to help fund leases and loans, has so far refused to say how many spaces it rents or how much money it has raised.

State Senator Liz Krueger, the lead sponsor of the Senate legalization bill, acknowledged that the state may need to make some changes to its cannabis program, but said the delays were a normal part of the process and not a sign of failure.

“Who starts a big business with hiccups?” She said. “I’m fine with the hiccups because I still think we have the best supermodel in the country. We’re just going to get it up and running.”

Housing Works Cannabis offers products from six New York-based brands ranging in price from $16 to $95. One ounce of smokeable weed costs about $65 with taxes, much higher than street tax rates but about as much as some bootleg dispensaries cost.

Charles King, President and CEO of Housing Works, justified the price hike, citing the safety of the product and where the tax money was going.

“We don’t sell adulterated products,” he said.

Mr. King said he wanted to carry more products, but the vendors haven’t been able to sell to him yet because their lab tests haven’t been completed.

It was difficult to find a suitable space and the landlord was willing to rent it to a dispensary, said Andrew Green, chief operating officer, and the storefront at 750 Broadway—a former Gap branch—was a last-minute find.

At the infirmary on Thursday, clients said they had come for the momentous occasion but also to check on the weeds.

Peter Alba, 62, of Queens, said he wanted to show his support for the legal industry and even applied for a job as a junior at Housing Works earlier in the day. By the afternoon, he was waiting to make one of his first legal purchases. But he said the goods he bought wouldn’t quite replace the cheaper stuff he could get from “my close friend.”

“It’ll cost me $80 for something I normally get for $40, $40 if it’s really good,” he said. “But listen, I’m in. I don’t mind paying a little more money to come in and pick some good flowers, but it’s not an everyday thing.”

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