Illegal smoke shops prove to be a challenge for Bronx pols amid legal cannabis rollout

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Throggs Neck BID Director Bob Jaen points out businesses he believes are illegally selling cannabis to Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark (left) and City Councilmember Marjorie Velázquez on July 13, 2023.
Photo Aliya Schneider

Despite attempts from local leaders to address constituent complaints, the fight to shut down illegal smoke shops in the Bronx seems far from over.

With the legal dispensary rollout in shambles and a statewide legal battle halting an already slow-moving launch, the growth of unregulated smoke shops has exploded since recreational marijuana was legalized in New York state in 2021.

The NYPD Sheriff’s Joint Compliance Task Force seized THC flower, pre-rolls, edibles and vapes, along with flavored vapes, untaxed cigarettes and other tobacco products on Sept. 13 at three Allerton Avenue smoke shops: 200 Healthy Deli Corp. at 649 Allerton Ave., BX Convenience & Smoke Store Corp. at 686-688 Allerton Ave. and Allerton Ave Smoke Shop Inc. at 800 Allerton Ave. The raids yielded two arrests and an estimated $223,700 in penalties, according to the sheriff’s office.

Chart Camille Botello

But it’s unclear how many illegal smoke shops there actually are across the city. Dan Haughney, the state Office of Cannabis Management’s (OCM) director of enforcement, told the Bronx Times in an interview that while there have been estimates thrown out, the agency has gotten unfounded complaints about alleged shops.

“I think that the numbers that have been out in the public view by various sources are elevated,” Haughney said.

He did not have a number of shops that the agency has fined or shut down in the Bronx to provide, and OCM did not respond to follow-up requests for that information.

Despite being disproportionately impacted by cannabis policing, which was supposed to be at the center of the state’s legalization efforts, the Bronx only has one legal recreational dispensary, which opened in the Crotona neighborhood in July. The shop, called Statis, began operations a whole six months after New York City’s first shop opened in Manhattan’s East Village in December 2022.

Meanwhile, illegal shops have been seen popping up in neighborhoods left and right, making residents – who fear unregulated drugs landing in the hands of minors – more familiar with illicit dispensaries than the state-sanctioned ones.

Community Board 10 members speak to Elena Ristovski, left, and Dragan Ristovski, who proposed a legal cannabis dispensary for the shuttered Pelham Bay 7-Eleven at a public hearing hosted by the board on July 26, 2023. Photo Aliya Schneider

In a tense Community Board 10 hearing in July  – in which the board voted 11-9 in favor of a proposed legal dispensary in Pelham Bay – various residents expressed frustration with the existence of illegal shops in the area. When a board member reminded them that the legal shop would differ from existing unlicensed shops, he was met with shouts of “Same thing!”

The licensees told a similar narrative to that of the owners of Hush (a dispensary planned for Allerton that nearly opened its doors before the court-imposed freeze) by arguing that OCM will shut down illegal shops near legal ones.

“I’m just curious as to why it takes putting a legal shop in a neighborhood to remove the illegal ones,” the CB10 Youth Services and Education Committee chair Angela Torres asked. “Like why is it that we can’t just remove them?”

Haughney told the Bronx Times that there is a “wide range of factors that come into play” when deciding where to conduct inspections, and while people may “surmise” the agency’s strategies based on where they see inspections, the agency has taken enforcement actions in areas with and without licensed shops, as well as neighborhoods that expect to have licensees and that have opted out of having dispensaries altogether. He would not get into specifics of how the agency chooses where to target, however, saying they don’t want to tip off illicit shops.

And while OCM has been granted the power to crack down on unregulated shops by the governor, shutting them down isn’t as straightforward as calling the cops.

OCM has the authority to conduct a regulatory inspection and seize illicit products before issuing a cease order, which gets put on the front window of the illegal shop, Haughney explained. Then, an administrative hearing process begins. While penalties for selling without a license are up to $10,000 a day – and $20,000 after the cease order – the consequences are ultimately up to the administrative law judge.

“From my standpoint in enforcement, yeah it would be much easier to go in and just walk into a shop, lock the door and kick everyone out,” Haughney told the Bronx Times. “But that’s not how it works. We do have due process that we have to follow and we’re happy to do that.” 

OCM does have the option, however, to work with the Attorney General’s office to file a petition for closure to padlock a shop if the owner is “egregious in their conduct” or “blatantly in defiance” of a cease order, Haughney said.

While Haughney said the agency is doing what it can to combat illegal shops, residents have been getting antsy, and electeds have tried to get involved, but not all of their efforts have paid off.

In an effort led by Throggs Neck Business Improvement District Executive Director Bob Jaen, elected officials walked into a smoke shop called Zaza Zone at 3815 East Tremont Ave. in Throggs Neck on July 13.

“Here’s the deal, I know you don’t have a license,” Jaen told the shopkeeper. “I know you don’t have a license to sell. I know you don’t.” 

Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark, state Senator Nathalia Fernandez and City Council Member Marjorie Velázquez were all by his side, along with Valerie Vazquez, first deputy commissioner for Mayor Eric Adams’ Community Affairs Unit.

They warned the shopkeeper of safety concerns, high fines and an eventual shutdown, and suggested Zaza Zone pursue the Conditional Adult-Use Retail Dispensaries (CAURD) application process — which has now been put on hold.

As the shopkeeper spoke with the officials, he reached back behind the counter to turn a switch that created a haze over the glass case underneath the front counter that held what looked like containers of cannabis.

Fernandez tried to give them the benefit of the doubt, and highly suggested they “shut down immediately.”

 “Maybe you didn’t know the new enforcement laws here,” Fernandez said. “We know marijuana got legalized, everybody wants to sell. But there are strict rules now for having licenses. So take this as your official warning that we know you don’t have a license.”

The NYC Sheriff’s office raided three Allerton Avenue shops in September. Photo courtesy Office of John Zaccaro Jr.

But the warning wasn’t effective, because the shop is still selling weed two months later.

Haughtney said he “can’t speak to any specific investigations” when asked about the Throggs Neck storefront.

Assembly Member John Zaccaro Jr., who attended the three Allerton Avenue raids, and Velázquez, who joined for one of them, are planning a community town hall meeting about illegal smoke shops and enforcement on Oct. 18 from 6-8 p.m. at the Bronx House Community Center, 990 Pelham Parkway South. RSVP and submit a question at

“We’re really dealing with a crisis here,” Zaccaro told the Bronx Times. “ … It’s so rampant.” 

He said illicit shops aren’t only undermining the newly legal market, but pose a health risk to consumers. Officials have long cautioned cannabis users against buying unregulated weed, warning people that they don’t actually know what they’re smoking.

That being said, a NY Cannabis Insider report found that New York’s legal weed could also pose safety concerns – such as from high levels of bacteria, yeast and mold – though OCM refuted that it’s a problem.

Velázquez, who serves as the chair of the council’s Committee on Consumer and Worker Protection, acknowledged that the product she saw being captured on Allerton Avenue “is only a fraction of what other retailers potentially have.” 

We must address the illegal cannabis retailers head-on,” she said.

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