While New York Waits to Legalize, NYC's Pot Culture is Booming

While New York's pot policy may be lagging behind towns like Los Angeles or Denver, where cannabis is already legal, the world's most vibrant city is nonetheless home to an equally vibrant, hardly underground cannabis culture.

With cannabis possession decriminalized up to 25 grams, New York has always operated at an ebb-and-flow with the permissiveness of the authorities that govern it. It may not be as outwardly free spirited as California, but New York has always had its own thing going.

But the City's excitement around cannabis isn't necessarily aligned with state-level legalization. In fact, marijuana legalization failed to get through the state's budget negotiations this past April — although there's an updated bill on the table with concessions for the governor, and with social justice advocates pushing for a more progressive approach.

Independent of what's happening in Albany, however, the underground has been long simmering with anticipation, with much of the culture inspired by what's already taking place across the country. On any given night, loft spaces and private brownstones across the city are packed to the gills with what are essentially speakeasies. The irony of this second prohibition is immense — once again New York’s residents flagrantly "break the law" to access their fun — but of course, the white and wealthy enjoy a degree of freedom in this rebellion unavailable to their black or brown counterparts subject to racialized policing.

This 4/20, New York’s cannabis scene was bumping, with revelers following smoke trails to bigger and bigger events as the night wore on, many of them women-led or created. Nodding to the pounding bass and visual stimulation of a warehouse party, cannabis author Michelle Lhooq hosted her signature Weed Rave — a definite high note that stood out among the night's festivities. Full of beautiful queer icons like Joey LaBeija, this was where you went to post up with Rosebud brand pre-rolls and a cocktail mixed with THC infused Randy Brandy.

You could really find all manner of parties, especially in Brooklyn, a monument to cannabis in its own right as the home of weed icons like The Notorious B.I.G. Taking the daytime festivities by storm, the leaders behind Cannaclusive, bringing diversity to the cannabis industry, held court at High Noon, a vendor event celebrating social use in Clinton Hill. Meanwhile, indie purveyors at Best Buds, a nearly-public marketplace in Bed Stuy, made the future look greener than ever, turning the back room of a cafe into a dispensary.

Just up Myrtle Avenue just into Queens, independent speakeasy owner “Mama D” and her cannabis friendly salon were the spot for a nightcap and an infused tapa, or five. Considering cannabis is decriminalized but not legal, the scale of the grey market puts the massive amount of illicit cannabis sent back east to good use.

By the East River in Williamsburg, Full Spectrum, a partnership between consulting agency Humble Bloom and New Highs CBD presented the spacey coolness of HB’s signature multi-sensory gatherings with Higher Dose LED facials, aesthetic eats, and mediation all during a buzzing party.

Keep in mind that though cannabis is decriminalized in New York City, it’s not legal to smoke in the streets, and possession of up to 25 grams carries a $100 fine. If you have an outstanding warrant, you can be arrested and charged, creating a real risk for many New Yorkers — especially those of color, who are more likely to be targeted by law enforcement. According to Gothamist, the much-loathed NYPD still gave 634 people summonses for cannabis so far in 2019.

However, despite continued disregard for decriminalization, after dark, you’ll identify the rich fragrance of cannabis multiple times on any given walk, in every corner of the city. Although the NYPD arrested one fifth as many people in December of 2018 as they did in June of last year (520 versus 2,652, though mostly still targeting Black and Latinx people), this significant drop — which may be fueling the rise in public cannabis use— is still nonetheless rife with injustice.

With the city aglow this summer, post "high holiday," locals in New York's cannabis community shared what they thought of the budding social scene, providing important cultural context to reflect on in the coming decades.

Civilized chatted with grey market darling and CEO of Kreaky Products, Chica (whose last name has been withheld to protect her identity), who's known around NY's underground circuit for her bright, purple branded infused line of topicals and tinctures. To put things in perspective, there were more than seven well advertised private cannabis parties on 4/20 in Brooklyn alone. Yet there is only one medical cannabis dispensary operating right now in Brooklyn, a boro spanning almost 70 square miles.

Chica says this is why, even after New York eventually legalizes, the black market isn’t going anywhere: “So many people have needs and not many people have the time to travel for medicine. The black market, like in other industries across the board, I believe will always be huge.“

One wonders if the party scene will expand or go away when adult use legalization arrives; however, Chica says that now that it’s becoming established, people won’t be giving it up anytime soon.

“In my head, I'm comparing [the cannabis scene in] NYC to my experiences in places like Colorado, Florida, the Dominican Republic, and Jamaica, and I have to say NYC stands out the most," she said. "We have attitude, spark and that firrrrre. I haven't smoked any Haze better than what's in the Heights...or even the Sour Diesel from The Bronx. It is what it is, we got the sauce.”

Maya Shaw, purveyor of unique cannabis accessories at Shaw Shop, has been on a special cannabis wavelength for some time, throwing community-building, educational, and CBD-infused events to build her brand before it was a widespread technique.

Shaw told Civilized that the vibe has started to shift away from the dingy dungeons that served the underground before, and more towards the queer, women, and PoC friendly spaces that some of her favorite bars embody.

“I'm currently working on creating a few different events that will be safe spaces for all people who consume. I think these events will spark a cannabis nightlife that will have vibes similar to bars like Kind Regards and Nowadays," she said of her favorite laid back and artistically appointed NYC nightlife spots.

New York is also known for its myriad CBD offerings, available at practically every bodega. However, Shaw says she’s over that whole category thanks to it’s severe oversaturation, along with how white communities have embraced it, while ignoring injustice (such as in racist policing mentioned above). “I'm not a fan of CBD in my shit anymore," she said, "because of the whitewashing and commercialization of it — super annoying!”

Luckily, many advocates are also working to educate New York's community, holding events in some of the swankiest hotels like the William Vale or The Hoxton, where they share stories and insights about tough topics like racism, sexism, sexuality, and women’s health. “I saw a huge spike in panels in spaces where you'd never thought they'd talk about weed!" Shaw said. "That's pretty cool because we are normalizing the conversation, and when you bring in the right partners to sit on these panels, they will share information that the public needs to hear... no PG shit, let's get real about this plant!”

Known as simply JazzOhh to protect her identity, this cannabis chef, mother, and activist is a regular on the underground vendor circuit — private gatherings that act as de facto marketplaces for eager buyers — making creative edibles and fun events under the brand Buddy Bakes NYC.

According to JazzOhh, New York's cannabis social scene appeals to people looking for an experience that they perhaps can’t get anywhere else, and could miss altogether if they aren’t careful. “Depending on who you know, I feel like you can get information on an event or sesh," she said. "But there is an air of exclusivity to the scene, so if you don’t move quick or know the right people you may not get access to anything. So, I guess it can be safe to say that the cannabis scene in NYC is very underground, but it’s growing.”

While New York's cannabis scene is expanding, even the 77 tons of black market cannabis that flow through the city still won't scratch the surface of what's available on the opposite coast. “There are plenty of New Yorkers who don’t get to experience half of the advanced levels of cannabis that exist and get explored in legal states, especially [like] California," JazzOhh said. "I personally know a lot of people who have never dabbed or even vaped. One reason is limited resources — because it’s all black market.”

Though dab bars and strain selection may have finally arrived on eastern shores, it’s nothing like the green coast. But the wave is due to break soon, and the opportunity that comes with it is something the state is thirsty for.

With just days left in the legislative season, hope is slim that New York will see legalization for 2020. New York State Assembly Member Richard N. Gottfried, father of New York's medical marijuana policy, told Civilized, “We are working with our partners in the Senate to ensure legislation that creates opportunities for all in a regulated market; expands patient access to medical marijuana; and protects hemp farmers, and I’m hopeful we can pass it before the end of session.”

New Yorkers, including Cannaclusive, Humble Bloom, and the independent cannabis purveyors we spoke with are demanding social equity programs to end the city’s dark history of cannabis prohibition on Black and Latinx communities.

Legislators like Gottfried are holding the torch in the face of ambivalence from many NY state democrats. “Our top priority must be reinvestment in the communities disproportionately affected by the War on Drugs,"he said. "That means not only community reinvestment generally but specifically helping people transition from the black market into the legal cannabis space.  There may also be funds dedicated to public health purposes such as education and outreach and substance treatment programs.”

He also shows an understanding that the functioning black market is already rife with entrepreneurs: “Criminal record sealing is the first step toward helping New Yorkers move from the underground market to legal sales. But since investors can’t get normal bank loans, the State must also provide funding for entrepreneurs to access the capital necessary to open a dispensary, a grow facility, or other cannabis business. Otherwise, there won’t be a pathway for people out of the black market and into legitimate businesses.”

As usual in this big and populous state, it’s complicated, but if all legislators and activists championed cannabis as much the ones we spoke with, there’s still hope for New York yet.

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