Column: Smoke shops bypass licensing protocols throughout NYC and what we’re doing to stop them

smoke shop
Firefighters battled an all hands fire at the Smoke Vape Convenience store on Broadway on Tuesday, Jan. 31.
Photo Lloyd Mitchell

In the last year, dozens of smoke shops have appeared in our communities, and here in Council District 13, we’ve seen a stark increase from previous years. Many of these smoke shops are knowingly making unlicensed tobacco and cannabis sales, disregarding federal, state and local laws. We cannot allow our communities to be overrun by illegal businesses, and during Mayor Adams’ State of the City address, he announced that the city will be increasing enforcement for unlicensed cannabis shops. New York City will launch a loan fund to help New Yorkers impacted by the war on drugs to start new businesses, and get back on their feet.

As the chair of the Committee on Consumer and Worker Protection, it is my responsibility to ensure consumers can identify bad actors and hold them accountable. This is why I, alongside my colleagues councilmembers Gale A. Brewer and Lynn Schulman, held a joint committee hearing with the Committee on Consumer and Worker Protection, Committee on Oversight and Investigations, and Committee on Health. I was proud to preside over the hearing because when it comes to the health and safety of our communities, especially our youth, we must work together and hold these entities accountable.

Here in Council District 13, many smoke shops have opened in close proximity to schools, community spaces and houses of worship, which would be illegal if they were legally licensed cannabis shops. The proximity to schools, colorful signage and flavored products entice minors to visit and patronize businesses when legally, they should not be able to buy tobacco or cannabis. In areas like District 6, the NYPD Sheriff’s Office found that out of 61 retailers surveyed, 22 of the 26 illicit cannabis retailers also sell tobacco products and a handful are without a license.

Less than 10 years ago, in 2015, New York City experienced the K2 (synthetic marijuana) epidemic, resulting in numerous deaths across the city and the country. Key stakeholders worked to identify how to combat K2. Today we have difficulty knowing what these illegal shops sell and to whom. This is a serious public health and safety concern for our city. Our communities already feel the repercussions of illegal cannabis sales; without the proper licensing and accountability, there are concerns about another K2 epidemic and we cannot afford for that to happen.

While these businesses are rapidly growing across the city, I am working alongside my colleagues at the New York City Council, the city Department of Consumer and Worker Protection, the Sheriff’s Office and our state and federal partners to find solutions that serve our communities. While it is important to support economic development, allowing many of these businesses to remain open devalues legitimate license holders and those trying to act in good faith.

Along with my colleagues, I will be monitoring the smoke shops closely to ensure our communities are safe. NYPD’s 45th and 49th precincts have received dozens of tips regarding illicit cannabis sales, and together, we will shut them down.

To report cigarette sales in unauthorized locations, either unlicensed stores, on the street or cigarette sellers who may have avoided city and state taxes by importing cigarettes from other states or countries, contact 311 or visit https://portal.311.nyc.gov/article/?kanumber=KA-01922. To report suspected unlicensed cannabis sales, email [email protected] to connect with the New York State Office of Cannabis Management by emailing [email protected].

Marjorie Velázquez is the councilmember who represents City Council District 13.